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Herring gulls in UK towns

David Chapman / 18 March 2021

Herring gull numbers are in decline, and yet pose a problem when nesting on urban rooftops. Find out about herring gull numbers in the UK, and how to deter them from nesting on your roof.

Herring gull with winter plumage
This adult herring gull has learnt to take food left at the table outside a café, the flecks on its head indicate this is a bird in winter plumage. Photo by David Chapman.

In the UK we have about ten species of gull which either breed or can be seen with some regularity. There is a tendency for people to lump them all together as ‘seagulls’, even some keen birdwatchers are reluctant to spend time identifying the different plumage stages of commoner gulls from those of rarer species. But it is a relatively simple task to identify our most common gull neighbour, the herring gull, the only species of gull that frequently nests on houses and the most likely to visit our gardens.

Herring gulls are quite large. In their adult form they have pale grey wings tipped with white and black, they are white underneath with pink legs and have a yellow bill with red spot. It takes a herring gull three years to reach adult plumage, during adolescence their plumage gradually changes from speckled brown with a dark beak to their more familiar adult form.

Herring gulls are more numerous in the winter than the summer because we receive many visitors from the continent seeking our milder weather. Generally, outside the breeding season their range also increases with many birds venturing further inland to places such as reservoirs and lakes where they find safety and refuse tips where they feed on our waste.

Herring gulls in our towns

The herring gull was once regarded as a bird of the coast where it nested on cliffs and islands but the first records of them adopting a house roof on which to nest occurred in south west England in the 1920s. This must have seemed like a small, logical step. The flat roof of a coastal house is a quiet, secluded spot with a sea view, not unlike the herring gull’s chosen habitat.

Herring gulls are long-lived birds. Their typical life span is 12 years but the record is 32 years of age. So a bird which chooses to nest on a roof sets an example to others for many years to come and this bird will give rise to many progeny which learn from their parents. By the 1940s it was quite common to see herring gulls nesting on roofs.

It wasn’t just the available nest sites that encouraged them to leave their islands and cliffs for a town-life. During the breeding season herring gulls are more sedentary than most other gull species. They like to stay close to the nest when seeking food to feed to their young, so they need somewhere with a rich food-supply. That’s where we come in.

Imagine a seaside town like St Ives, bustling with tourists through the gull’s breeding season. What do tourists do? Well they all eat. In Cornwall it’s pasties and you can bet your life that a lot of people can’t manage all that pastry so some gets thrown away, fed to the gulls or deposited in a dustbin, and the same goes for the chips. In a nutshell, people mean food.

It isn’t just St Ives, nor is it just seaside towns any more. Our wasteful society is responsible for attracting gulls into urban areas further and further from the coast. It isn’t uncommon to see herring gulls scavenging in take-away food boxes thrown away casually on the streets. Being long-lived they learn new behaviour and so it isn’t difficult to see how they began to pull the same take-away food packaging from open-fronted dustbins and they have progressed to ripping dustbin bags apart in their search for food.

Having encouraged them to behave badly we find the situation hard to tolerate so herring gulls are now in conflict with humans and that’s never a good place for a wild creature to be. Our response has been quite brutal with many local authorities destroying eggs, under license from the government. In problem areas steps have been taken to try to discourage gulls from breeding on buildings and to encourage people to stop feeding the gulls either deliberately or accidentally.

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Herring gull numbers in the UK

Having reached an estimated population of 750,000 breeding pairs in 1993 the herring gull has gone through a rapid decline with only about 140,000 pairs nesting recently. The decline in population as a breeding bird and as a winter visitor has led to the herring gull becoming red-listed, i.e. the highest conservation priority where the species needs urgent action.

The naturalist in me wants everyone to encourage herring gulls and help them recover, it would be a great shame to allow their decline to continue. But I am a practical person and I can see the difficulties that can be created by having a herring gull nesting on your roof. Gulls can be very protective of their young and I have heard from people who have been attacked when they go into their garden, just because there is a clutch of young herring gulls on the roof.

If you have gulls and don’t get any problems from them then that’s all well and good, but if you are having problems you need to know the law. Gulls are protected by law so must not be killed and that includes their young. During the breeding season their nests must not be destroyed. Only when there is a significant risk to public health can this be done and even then only with a license issued by the government. If you are having serious problems then start by contacting your local council who might have a license for dealing with such cases.

Young herring gull
This young herring gull is keeping an eye out for a fish and chip take away.

How to deter herring gulls from nesting on rooftops

It’s better to deter gulls from nesting on your roof in the first place and there are a range of strategies that you can try. They tend to make their nests on shelves such as where a rooflight meets the roof or against a chimney breast. In places like this spikes can be used to deter them. Wires stretched across roofs can deter gulls from landing and netting might be a possibility but great care should be taken to avoid snaring birds in loose netting. All of these tasks need to be carried out by specialists, again I would recommend contacting your local council first.

There are various other forms of deterrent including the erection of plastic eagle owls, windmills and the taped recordings of birds of prey. The effectiveness of these is likely to be short-lived because herring gulls are intelligent creatures and soon learn where there is or isn’t danger.

If you are having a house built or extended, in an area where gulls nest then try to avoid creating niches where they can construct a nest, and particularly avoid offering them a flat roof.

In the medium to long-term we need to stop herring gulls seeing us as an easy source of food. This means not putting black bin bags full of rubbish on the streets where they can rip into them; not feeding them chips; not throwing take-away boxes with our left overs from our car windows as we drive through the streets; not allow our public dustbins to overflow, and the list goes on. Unless we can modify our behaviour, how can we expect the herring gull to change?

The story of the herring gull is a difficult one. I love watching them on our local recreation fields where they stand in one spot paddling their feet on the wet grass to charm worms to the surface and I enjoy seeing a flock of them following a tractor across the fields. It’s difficult to watch as a herring gull swoops down to snatch an ice cream from a child’s hand and I can understand the resentment that people show but my overriding feeling is that we have taught these creatures to do this, albeit inadvertently.

We are now suffering the consequences of our own actions, so maybe we need to give the herring gull a break and make every effort to gradually iron-out our issues while doing our best to live alongside each other.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.