Like us, they protect their young from perceived danger and source food when hunger hits. Yet, natural and instinctive as that behaviour might be, when it comes to the humble seagull, it’s being used as a stick with which to conduct a chorus of gull-culling enthusiasts.
To find the source of this tragicomic farce, we have to gaze skyward, to the lofty heights of the upper house of the Oireachtas. As it was there, in the traditional nesting place of some of Ireland’s finest intellectuals — many of whom narrowly escaped the fate of singing their own swan song following the closely-fought abolition of the Seanad referendum in 2013 — that Senator Denis O’Donovan’s recent call to reopen a conversation about gull- culling, divided the nation.
For the motorcyclist who had to fend off a diving gull in the Iveragh peninsula this week and for the Kerry farmers whose ewes and lambs were recently attacked or killed by seagulls (or herring gulls to give them their correct name), the topic of how best to deal with the foibles of the few who have given us trouble, is no laughing matter.
John Carmody, founder of ARAN (Animal Rights Action Network) is another who’s not amused; but for different reasons. “Senator O’Donovan appears to be infatuated with the need to put a bounty on seagulls, and he’s clearly not letting up,” he says.
“ARAN is incensed with his push to kill these intelligent animals who, just like the rest of us, are merely trying to eke out an existence in this world.
“Seagulls are coming inland because we’re stripping the seas of their food. It’s only natural then, that they’ll try and find a bite to eat on the streets. O’Donovan’s promotion of the hideous idea of gull- culling is a short-sighted and temporary solution to a problem that would be eased if people would take more care of where they put their rubbish and try and avoid eating in public when the birds are around.”
Niall Hatch, development officer at Birdwatch Ireland agrees that the gull problems being experienced on city streets by a tiny minority of the population are for the most part caused by human behaviour. Explaining that herring gulls are amongst the most threatened bird species in Ireland, he outlines how difficult we’re making it for them to survive: “Overfishing has depleted their food-stocks, fires set deliberately or accidentally by day-trippers have destroyed their nesting sites and botulism in food- filled black sacks has wiped out those scavenging at landfills.”
As for the unsocial antics displayed by a mere handful of gulls, Hatch says it’ll soon be at an end: “It’s an entirely natural response to protect the young which takes place every year for a couple of weeks in July and then subsides.”
While British MPs are calling for the axing of laws that protect seagulls in the UK, and prime minister David Cameron has called for “a big conversation” on the topic, here at home herring gulls continue to be a protected species and a licence is required for their control.
With that, it’s illegal under the Wildlife Acts 1976-2010 to attack, hurt or kill these birds, or to disturb their nests or eggs.
For all the furore and hysteria on the topic, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has not, according to a spokesperson, experienced any recent upsurge in the demand for permits to scare gulls or remove nests from chimneys, and it has no plans whatsoever to reduce our herring gull population.
Long may this policy continue, not only for humane reasons, but because seagull numbers in Ireland have declined by anestimated 58% between 2002 and 2012 and by 90% since 1987.
As for Mr O’Donovan, is he not concerned that his words might trigger the death-knell for flocks of wild birds? “I wouldn’t want to see them shot or poisoned,” he says. “But given that seagulls devoured a tortoise and killed a pet terrier in Cornwall, we need to look at their aggressive behaviour. That said, I enjoy their company when they perch on the side of my boat. The larger ones can swallow a mackerel whole. That’s a wonderful sight to behold.”
So he wouldn’t like to see them hurt? “Of course not,” he says. “I wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone a bird. The other day a robin flew into our kitchen and I carefully caught him in a tea-towel and set him free.”
Bird lover that the senator obviously is, here’s hoping that if he ever does get around to reopening the conversation about gull- culling, he’ll stand opposed to that stance, and do his utmost to protect these exquisite creatures from all harm.
See ‘Outdoors’ in Monday’s Irish Examiner for more nature and wildlife coverage.