Why our herring gulls are an endangered species
PUBLISHED: 10:56 27 June 2020 | UPDATED: 11:41 13 July 2020
Not all gulls are chip muggers, says nature writer Matt Gaw. Find out why seafaring herring gulls are now endangered and need our help
The sun is high and bright, the deep blue of a sky ribbed with high, soft clouds that mirror the waves that hiss and suck on to the shingle. To the right is the line of old houses, built for fishermen and the pilots of the Ore, which now make Shingle Street one of the most recognisable spots in Suffolk.
Looking north, as far as the long, strange nose of Orford Ness, is a coastline that has been nibbled and scalloped by the waves. This is a place that is beloved for its oldness – its quaint 19th century houses, its thimble-shaped Martello tower, its lack of streets – yet it is also somewhere dynamic and ever-changing.
We walk north, slowing to look at wind-ragged bursts of yellow horned poppy and clumps of thick-leaved sea kale. The children, hot from the car journey, are getting impatient in a way that I remember from drives to the beach when I was young. Why keep going when everything is here? They are willing to explore, but only if it is in the shortest possible straight line from this exact spot to the water. We go past the steep shingle banks of the lagoon-like pool and then let them go – puppies off the leash, both of them kicking off shoes and shrieking as they wriggle out of their clothes.
I sit down and watch them splash about, feeling the sun tightening the skin on my back. Behind me, and behind the low drifts of shingle I can hear skylarks singing in the salt marsh. Their notes, so quick they run together, rise and fall with their flights. Out to sea though, the skies are quiet. A single tern, the black markings on its head like the tightest of swimming caps, fishes where the beach begins to shelve towards darker, deeper water. Perhaps it is because I spent so many years living in the sea-side city of Brighton – a place that rang with the gulping, throaty cries of herring gulls – but it seems strange that there doesn’t seem to be any gulls about.
Even though one used to routinely wake me at 4am by pecking ominously at my window I do have a real fondness for gulls. They are handsome, full of intelligence and character. Our relationship with gulls is not straightforward. On the one hand, the herring gull is a totem of the seaside, evocative of sun, salt and happiness. The bird’s languid outline, rendered in a low, softly curved McDonald’s “m”, is present in almost every child’s drawing of a beach. The herring gull is the seagull.
But on the other hand, the herring gull is also a bird of landfill. A chip mugger, a picnic pirate, a bin chicken. And, like all the animals that have adapted to make the most of our leavings and litter – the rat, the feral pigeon, the urban fox – we view it with disdain. The herring gull has become, just as the red kite did when it scavenged scraps from London’s streets up to the 18th century, a detested bird.
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The reasons for our conflict with herring gulls are of our own making. While urban populations, where birds have adapted to make the most of modern habitat, are relatively healthy, marine species are struggling. Nesting sites have disappeared, our seas have been depleted, and an increase in recycling has seen food sources dwindle. The herring gull, once so ubiquitous, so noisily present, is now on the Red List of threatened species.
Mid afternoon turns to late afternoon and an inshore fishing boat chugs for home. As it loops round a buoy and points its bow for Orford, two or three gulls appear as if by magic. A lesser-black backed gull is first in pursuit. Slightly smaller than the herring gull, its head and beak markings are similar, but its wings, the colour of old cod skin or the winter sea, are noticeably darker. It is joined by a youngster still dressed in teenage brown.
The herring gull, when it arrives, heads low over the shore-line, its fishhooked, red-dotted beak pointing towards barbecues and sunbathers. I stand to watch as it banks with just the smallest tip of its battleship-grey wings and follows in the fishing boat’s wake. I shield my eyes with my hand until the boat disappears round the coast and find myself hoping that the sight won’t, like some of the postcards of Shingle Street, be just a glimpse of the past.