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Where I work, there are herring gulls nesting on the roof. The employer had got men to remove the eggs and kick apart the nests. Is this legal?

Sent in by Diane Main, Aberdeenshire

Gulls, like all UK wild bird species, are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This makes it a criminal offence to kill, injure or take a gull; or to take, damage or destroy its nest whilst the nest is in use or being built. It is also a criminal offence to take or destroy their eggs.

However, there are exceptions to this and the law recognises that in some circumstances control may be necessary. As a result, the government issues a series of General Licenses which permit authorised persons to control certain species of gull for specific reasons. In Scotland, the reasons herring gulls can be controlled under a General License are 1) to preserve or protect public health and safety 2) to preserve air safety (e.g. near airports) or 3) to prevent serious damage to livestock, food for livestock or crops. If the reasons given are for anything other than these, then the people concerned would potentially be acting illegally.

Before a General License can be used for any of the above reasons, the person must be convinced that there is no other satisfactory solution to the problem. Alternative solutions that can be tried include deterrents such as spikes or wires (to prevent roosting and nesting) or audible/sonic deterrents.

Gulls being a 'nuisance' e.g. noise or damage to property are not legitimate reasons for control under the authority of a general license.

In most cases, culling gulls is avoiding the real issue - problems and conflicts between gulls and people have risen dramatically over the last 20 years, which coincides with the wider availability of fast food and waste. Herring gulls will eat almost anything of suitable size and texture, feeding on waste food in urban areas, waste from landfill sites, the deliberate feeding by the public and natural food such as fish, invertebrates, molluscs etc. The most effective control measures involve reducing the availability of food and deterring them from nest sites. However, this is not an instant solution, and requires planning and action well ahead of the nesting season. Because most gull-related problems are confined to the breeding period, and because gulls usually always return to the same breeding site each year, once access to a breeding area has been blocked and the area protected with deterrents, the gulls will move elsewhere.

Lethal control, including the destruction of eggs and nests, can be ineffective if used in isolation. Physical measures need to be put in place immediately to prevent re-nesting.

Our gulls

There are five main gull species that occur in towns, and of these only four have populations in excess of 80,000 pairs, but all qualify as species of conservation concern:

• the UK herring gull population has declined by more than 40% since 1970,

• the black-headed gull population has declined by around 40% in the UK since the mid 1980s,

• the common gull population has declined by more than one-third in the UK since the mid 1980s, and is declining elsewhere in Europe, especially in Scandinavia,

• the lesser black-backed gull occurs in internationally important numbers: one-third of the European population nests in the UK.

The black-headed gull and common gull can only be killed or taken under General License at certain aerodromes.

Three gull species, the yellow-legged, little and Mediterranean gull are fully protected and cannot be killed even under the terms of the General License. There is a danger that people who cannot distinguish between gull species may be killing some of these species and thereby causing further declines in their numbers.

If you believe that the control being carried out at your work place is for a reason other than those legitimate reasons for gull control listed above, this is a matter that should be referred to the police for investigation by a wildlife crime officer. You can do this yourself or we can help you if you need to remain anonymous.

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