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In defence of public enemy number one

By August 29, 2021No Comments

Aoife Geary reflects on seagulls, biodiversity, and why when it comes to ruffling feathers, we only have ourselves to blame

The past few months have been tense for everyone. One cohort in particular has come under increased criticism. They’ve been vilified for anti-social behaviour on the streets of Dublin;  intimidating people in outdoor dining areas, making noise late into the night, and congregating in large groups with zero regard for social distancing.


I’m talking, of course, about our winged friends. Seagulls.

The seagulls in our cities, or public enemy number one as they’ve come to be known, get a lot of bad press. Even Green TDs and councillors have recently joined the discussion around these ‘nuisance’ birds.

But are we right to be in such a flap about gulls? Should there really be a cull? I spoke to Niall Hatch from BirdWatch Ireland and discovered three main reasons why we need to stop shitting on seagulls.

1. The noise will stop soon

Is it a cat? Is it a brawl? No, it’s the squawking of gulls and it’s admittedly relentless. All around the city we’ve been awoken by a full-bodied orchestral performance more powerful than that of Bill Whelan himself.

The good news is that it’s seasonal and it won’t last forever. This time of year the young are starting to get their independence but are still being cared for by their parents. This means they’re calling to each other a lot more which causes the din.

“Chicks become independent very quickly so the noise will soon die down,” said Niall. “We’d ask that people be patient and recognise that the gulls aren’t the problem. Their behaviour is part of a much wider environmental issue,” he added.

2. They’re in crisis

When it comes to depleting resources, we did start the fire. There is a perception that the gull population has exploded recently but the reality is that gulls moving into urban areas is a sign that these birds are in crisis. According to Niall, the species has suffered a 90% decline in just 30 years. “It’s desperation that’s driving them into the city to nest on rooftops,” he said.

Overfishing and pollution have damaged their ecosystem to the point of emergency. Their natural food supplies have diminished and our plastic waste is the leading cause of mortality among sea birds. “It would be rare for us to find a sea bird dead on the beach, do an autopsy and not find significant amounts of plastic in their stomach or digestive system,” Niall said.

3.  Gulls are protected species

Under the EU birds directive, it’s a criminal offence to disturb bird habitats. Unfortunately, these laws aren’t always enforced. In fact, in certain areas like Balbriggan, local authorities have issued licenses for the removal of bird eggs claiming they have the power to do this under the Wildlife Act. Niall says that at BirdWatch Ireland they believe “this is an improper interpretation of the law and totally unacceptable.”

Aside from their protected status, Niall says any cull of gulls would be a “conservation disaster” that fails to address the larger ecological problem we now face. If we were to cull gulls, they would just be replaced by another species.

So what can we do to achieve a more harmonious relationship with our nesting neighbours?

The first thing to do is to be more responsible with our rubbish. Humans are very wasteful and birds are opportunistic. It’s a problematic combination. Birds have learnt that food can be found in the many black bags dumped outside businesses in the city. It’s also worth noting that while gulls are often seen attacking this discarded rubbish during the day, we can be sure that rats and foxes are digging into these bags at night. We need to manage our waste better. Fewer black bags and no more overflowing bins.

The second thing to do is stop feeding gulls. You might think that sharing your leftover sandwich is kind or thrifty but it’s how gulls come to expect food from humans. And get aggressive when they feel humans are holding out on them! Who hasn’t been driven to hanger at the aroma of someone else’s fish and chips? If we reduce the availability of food, the numbers of gulls demanding it from us will decline in the long term.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to lobby our TDs. We need to demand that they take our biodiversity crisis more seriously. The Dáil declared a biodiversity emergency in 2019 but precious little has been done to tackle it. Biodiversity and climate are inextricably linked.

And if we’ve learnt anything over the past few weeks, it’s that we need to take action. Now.

If you would like to learn more about the conservation and protection of our wild birds, go to BirdWatch Ireland.