When it has come to headline-grabbing news this northern summer in Europe, forget the war on terror, the war on illegal immigrants, the Greek financial crisis. Britain has been at war with its seagulls.
The “killer seagulls”, to quote no less an authority than The Times of London, have become such a threat to national security that the Prime Minister himself has had to intervene.
Like the gulls themselves, the national media appears to be in a frenzy. Along with The Times, the Daily Mail has reported that seaside dwellers were calling the gulls “public enemy number one”. The tabloid Star even claimed that “crazed gulls across the English Channel were dive-bombing migrants and had become a flying border patrol. But the upmarket Daily Telegraph may have taken the biscuit when it reported that a “psychotic” gull had turned cannibal and been seen eating a starling.
The attacks seem to have centred on the country of Cornwall in the far south-west of the country and during a flying visit there Prime Minister David Cameron said there needed to be a “big conversation” about the birds.
His trip followed reports the birds had attacked pensioners, children, dogs, even a tortoise. They had stolen countless chips, Cornish pasties and doughnuts from unwary holidaymakers. It truly has been the year of the gull with one newspaper observing the gulls were at the top of the pecking order when it came to summer news.
The latest attacks have left a 66-year-old woman needing hospital treatment and a four-year-old boy traumatised after his finger was savaged.
A resident in a Cornish seaside town, Sue Atkinson, was pounced on as she walked her dog. “All of a sudden I felt this whoosh,” she said. “I saw it was a seagull and he came in again and cut the top of my head. I couldn’t see what was happening – I was oozing blood. It did frighten me. Apart from the fact I was bleeding, I was scared it was going to come back. It was like a scene from the film The Birds.”
She staggered home and was taken to hospital, where her wound was treated.
A gull expert with the British Trust for Ornithology, Viola Ross-Smith, who gets hate mail when she defends gulls, said summer was the prime time of year for gulls and people to clash. The birds have young they are keen to defend, and more people are arriving on their holidays. There had long been tensions, although she accepted there seemed to be more this summer.
She pointed out, however, gull surveys suggested the numbers of herring and lesser black-backed gulls – the two types generally responsible for attacks – were down by about 30 and 48 percent respectively in the last 15 years. She was worried by reports that some people seem to be seeking revenge – the body of one gull was left like an offering outside a police station.
Unlike in Britain, human interaction with gulls in Tasmania only relates to our smallest species, the silver gull, and from my experience at the fish and chip punts on the Hobart docks the gulls pose more of a nuisance than a threat.
Our bigger gulls – the kelp and pacific – might be the same size as the two British problem species but they tend to keep their distance from humans, except possibly at the Hobart tip.
And unlike in Britain, gull numbers here are at a healthy level. Although this year’s state-wide count revealed a drop in numbers on 2014, long-term the gulls have shown a steady increase.
Birdlife Tasmania has been counting gulls for more than 30 years. Current numbers stand at: silver, 14,000; kelp, 5000 and pacific 400.
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