Gulls: a balancing act

It may not seem like it when gulls are swooping down trying to steal your chips, but the number of many species of gulls has plummeted. In fact, herring gulls and kittiwakes are on the red list of conservation concern in the UK, with many other species of gull on the amber list.

Herring gull chicks, Isle of May National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

So why does it seem as if there are more gulls than ever? It’s likely because their food sources have dried up in some areas and – opportunistic and clever birds that they are – they have found our cities and towns to be full of food along with great nesting spots on roofs.

They are a regular source of complaint in many towns and cities because of noise, their tendency to get into rubbish containers, as well as aggressive behaviour during nesting and while rearing chicks (from about April to August).

Due to the large numbers of nesting gulls in urban areas, they can come into conflict with people and cause public health or safety issues. These issues range from gull aggression to significant noise disturbance. Problems with gulls can also be experienced in agricultural settings – for example, great black-backed gulls may cause serious damage to livestock, primarily lambs.

Lesser black-backed gull and chick, Isle of May National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

All breeding birds are protected by law, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do when problems arise. Gulls in towns generally use roofs for nesting and tend to return year after year. Where gulls are causing or anticipated to cause an issue, it is important to be proactive by acting quickly to minimise the risk posed and to reduce the likelihood of it becoming a long-term problem. 

We recommend that people look for ways to prevent gulls from nesting in certain places to avoid problems in future years. This can be achieved by a variety of methods, such as preventing gull access to a location by proofing (e.g., bird spikes or netting), deterring gulls using scaring techniques, and removing food waste which can attract gulls.

You can find more information about gull management in NatureScot’s gull management guidance. All gull species in Scotland are protected by law, making it an offence to destroy nests which are in use or being built, take or destroy eggs, or take or kill adults and chicks. If you need to use these methods of gull management as a last resort, you will require a licence to do so.

A kittiwake on its nest. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Since 1 April 2020, all gull species have been removed from NatureScot’s General Licences due to conservation concerns. People must now apply for a gull licence for specific locations experiencing issues with gulls, with the NatureScot Licensing team assessing applications. Find gull licensing information on public health or safety on our bird public health and safety licensing web page; find information about preventing serious damage to livestock or food for livestock on our bird serious damage licensing web page

We strongly advise that, for locations where you believe problems with gulls will occur this year and licensed action is likely to be necessary, you apply for a licence as soon as possible.

But if they’re not causing a problem, take some time to appreciate these wonderful, often underappreciated, birds. They’re amazingly agile fliers which mate for life, with male and female bird splitting all caring duties. They’re also clever, dropping mussels onto rocks or roads to break them open, and stamping their feet to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms into coming to the surface!

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