Gulls: do you love them or loathe them?

The urban gull. People either love them or loathe them. Perhaps you like feeding them. Or maybe you get annoyed when they swoop down and steal your chips.

Herring gull. ©Lorne Gill
Herring gull. ©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

If you’re woken up by noisy gulls, it may seem like they are everywhere in our towns and cities. But gull species are actually struggling in their native habitat, with their numbers tumbling in some areas and for all species in Scotland. Some of them have moved into our towns and cities from their more natural coastal habitats, as food is much more readily available around humans.

Herring gulls are a red-listed species on the birds of conservation concern list, meaning that overall their populations are in decline. The other large gull species that we often see in towns are lesser black-backed gulls, a species which is also in decline, along with all other species of gull on the amber list of conservation concern which breed in Scotland.

Herring gulls and chicks. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Gulls eat just about anything: small fish, snails, insects, spiders, eggs – and, of course, human food waste. If you leave it out, they will come. They’re quite handy for cleaning up our beaches, but as their favourite grub of small fish has become harder to find, they’ll settle for whatever we leave available. So one way to keep them away is not to feed them and to make sure your rubbish goes in a secure bin.

We recognise that due to the large numbers of nesting gulls in urban areas, gulls 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 can cause serious damage to livestock, primarily lambs.

As a result of conservation concerns, all gull species were removed from NatureScot’s suite of General Licences in April 2020.  This means that individual gull licences must now be applied for and assessed by the NatureScot Licensing team.

Gulls following a tractor and harrow preparing soil for farming. ©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

Gulls, like all birds are protected by law, making it an offence to destroy nests which are in use or being built, to take or destroy eggs, or to take or kill adults and chicks. However, there are still things 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’s important to act quickly to reduce the likelihood of it becoming a long-term problem. 

We recommend that people look at ways to prevent gulls from nesting in certain places to avoid problems in future years. This can be achieved through 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 how to manage problems with gulls in NatureScot’s gull management guidance.

In April, gulls begin to establish territories and nesting locations, with the first eggs laid towards the end of April. Between May and June, eggs are incubated and chicks hatch and grow. In July, the chicks fledge and adult and juvenile gulls begin to leave nesting colonies. This means applicants should apply now for individual licences from NatureScot if they are having or anticipating a public health or safety issue with nesting gulls that can’t be solved through preventative measures or deterrents.

Lesser black-backed gull and chicks. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

A licence is required from the NatureScot Licensing team to carry out any activity that would otherwise be an offence with regards to gulls. Licensing is considered to be a last resort after all other solutions have been tried or considered. However, you can now apply for a gull licence for public health or safety purposes via our new online gull application service. For gull licence applications to prevent serious damage to livestock or foodstuffs for livestock, please refer to our bird serious damage licensing 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, some of which travel for thousands of miles from Scotland to spend winter in Africa. They 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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