Calls for a gull cull: kneejerk or necessary?

A spate of aggressive seagull incidents has sparked calls for a cull but is it the most effective way to tackle problems with wildlife?

A watchful seagull at the new Ulster University building site in central Belfast Picture by Mal McCann

SEAGULLS have been getting a lot of bad press lately – stealing food, killing small dogs, and even scaring off construction workers! But are calls for a cull justified?

These pretty hefty birds appear to have lost the run of themselves, causing problems on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In the Republic, Senator Denis O'Donovan has demanded a cull of the “vicious” birds, claiming they are “endangering” children as they seek food on land rather than at sea, and even killing lambs and rabbits.

Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken about “aggressive” seagulls after they killed a dog in Cornwall and a pet tortoise in Liskeard, suggesting that a “big conversation” was needed to resolve the issue of seagulls, which are protected by law. And gulls recently struck in Belfast, where plans to erect fencing on York Lane were put on hold after construction workers were forced to duck to avoid low-flying birds.

The dictionary defines the word ‘cull' as the reduction of the population of (a wild animal) by selective slaughter. Gulls are not unique. Other wildlife targeted by calls for culling, or actual culls, have included urban foxes, badgers, pine martens, hen harriers, deer and grey squirrels.

The topic tends to polarise opinion; however, Conor McKinney of Ulster Wildlife believes that each case must be treated individually before any decision on culling is made by authorities. The living landscapes manager is vehemently opposed to the idea of culling seagulls but says there are cases where one of the factors considered in any case should be the health of the local ecosystem.

“We are generally devoid of any type of apex predator like wolves or lynx [in Ireland],” he says. There is evidence that lynx lived on the island – bones discovered in Kilgreany Cave, Co Waterford, are almost 9,000 years old – while many believe that the last wolf was killed in Co Carlow in 1786.

Without those kinds of large predators, species like deer tend to thrive, stripping bark from trees and destroying saplings needed for woodland regrowth. Conor believes that deer numbers in counties Fermanagh and Tyrone “need to be managed” to limit the amount of damage done to the environment.

He also points to the grey squirrel, an invasive species which thrives at the expense of its red cousin and can spread disease and parasites, strip tree bark and eat acorns before they have the chance to germinate.

Conor says that any decision to cull a species must be based on scientific evidence and that species' potential negative impact on the “health of the wider eco-system”. What appears certain is that culling should not be treated as a quick-fix solution.

Meanwhile, Amy Colvin of RSPB NI warns against a knee-jerk reaction to the gull drama, saying it's a perennial issue that occurs during the nesting season and because gulls are being driven into urban areas by over-fishing and humans' litter habits.

Amy says that we need to have a conversation about how human actions are contributing to issues regarding species that lead to calls for culls.


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