Seagulls – advice and information

We often receive enquiries about ‘seagulls’, which usually relate to either Herring Gulls or Kittiwakes. These are two species of seabird that breed within our urban areas and consequently may come into conflict with people.

Below is some information and practical advice on how best to tackle the challenges that may arise due to the proximity of gulls and people, within the laws that are designed to protect them. By playing your part you can help us to address some of the issues associated with them by:

  • Never feeding the gulls
  • Never dropping litter – dispose of it in a public bin or take it home
  • Not putting refuse sacks out too early
  • Covering refuse sacks to prevent attack or purchasing a seagull proof outer sack (£15) from Customer First by calling 01723 232323
  • Not overfilling your bin so the lid cannot close

Reporting conflicts between gulls and people

We have an urban gull incident reporting form which you can use to help us gather information on urban gull interactions with people. Alternatively you can call us on 01723 232323.

It is important that we quantify evidence of the full range of interactions, including instances of gulls being fed or obtaining discarded human food as well as any gull ‘attacks’. Commonly reported issues include:

  • Noise nuisance caused by gulls, including distress calls to warn other gulls of perceived danger
  • Fouling caused by their droppings can be a nuisance on pathways, cars and property but also may pose a health risk near people or food establishments or a safety hazard if gull faeces make steps or pathways slippery
  • Damage to property caused by droppings or debris from nests blocking gutters and downpipes
  • Diving and swooping on people and pets. This can be if the person is carrying food or might be because chicks have fallen from the nest onto the ground and the adult birds might be attempting to drive off potential threats. They may sometimes come into contact with people and cause injury
  • Discarded food waste left in the open or people feeding gulls
  • Overflowing litter bins or open skips from which gulls are obtaining food

Serious issues may occur when debris or nesting materials block gas flues, which can have severe consequences if gas fumes are prevented from venting properly. If you are the property owner and have concerns relating to such a blockage please familiarise yourself with the section on ‘the law’ below and then seek independent advice from a local pest control service. If you are a tenant, you will need to inform your landlord.

Herring Gull disruption programme

We appointed NBC Environment to undertake a one year trial disruption and dispersal programme, which started in March 2017. It focused on seafront and town centre locations in Scarborough and Whitby where evidence from public reports indicated that Herring Gulls were causing a public health or public safety issue . It involved the removal of Herring Gull eggs and nests from buildings in the selected areas and the use of birds of prey such as Harris Hawks and falcons as deterrents.

In December 2017, as the first season of nesting was reviewed, the council agreed to a further two year disruption and dispersal programme, but also including specific seafront locations in Filey as well, to gather more evidence of its impact. Herring Gull disruption activities by NBC Environment will therefore continue during the 2018 and 2019 breeding seasons. If you are aware of problems associated with nesting Herring Gulls in these specific areas, you can report your concerns to NBC Environment by calling 0800 169 9646 between 8.00am and 5.00pm, Monday to Friday.

Differences between Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes

Both Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes belong to the group of birds known as gulls but their ecology and behaviour are quite different. There are differences also in the way the law applies to them so it is important to differentiate between the two species, although both are Red List Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK. The term ‘seagull’ does not discriminate and can give rise to confusion, so it is preferable to use the names of the species themselves or use the term ‘gulls’ where you are unsure. A useful resource for those not familiar with gulls and how to tell them apart is available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/gulls-and-terns/

Kittiwakes

Small, delicate gulls, which spend most of the year at sea, returning to land only long enough to nest and raise chicks, which they do in colonies on sea cliffs or increasingly on ledges and buildings in coastal towns. Their plumage is similar to the larger Herring Gull, apart from the all black tips to their wing, (as if dipped in ink). The bill is yellow but their feet and legs are black, in contrast to all other species of gulls and terns. Kittiwakes have a distinctive cry which sounds like “kittie-wa-ake” from which their name derives. They feed only on wild food foraged at sea and do not take human food or waste. They are not associated with behaviours such as swooping at humans unless they feel their nests, eggs or hatched chicks are at risk. Kittiwakes nest on window and building ledges, but only in certain places in Scarborough, between Spa Bridge and Sandside. Most often the enquiries to the council about Kittiwakes relate to noise and droppings or deterring them from nesting on these buildings. Their nests may only be removed in the winter when the birds are absent.

Herring Gulls

Large, vocal gulls resident all year round in coastal towns, typically nesting on chimney pots and rooftops, including flat roofs. They are mostly white with grey wings and back. Distinguishing features include pink legs and feet and a yellow, hooked bill with a prominent red spot. Young birds are mottled brown. Herring Gulls are territorial and very protective of their offspring in breeding season. They are quick to exploit alternative food sources such as food waste in litter bins. These natural instincts of Herring Gulls can give rise to incidents reported as ‘gull muggings’, where the birds swoop down at or near people or sometimes attempt to take food that they have spotted. Needless to say feeding the gulls exacerbates this learned behaviour.

During the summer season, Herring Gulls are feeding and protecting their young, and may aggressively seek out food by any means possible. Unfortunately, by feeding the birds, leaving rubbish bags out for collection unsecured and dropping litter in the street, humans have made it easy for them and this is one of the main reasons we are experiencing the problems, particularly in the spring and summer seasons. We are working with businesses and the general public to combat these problems.

The law

All wild birds, their nests, eggs and chicks are protected by law (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). Even an empty unoccupied nest may not be removed within the breeding season. In practice this means that any measures to proof buildings, clear old nests at the end of the season must be completed in winter. In the case of Kittiwakes, they may return to traditional nest sites as early as February. Removing an old Kittiwake nest once the birds have begun adding new material to it is therefore an offence.

In very particular circumstances property owners can have Herring Gull nests and eggs removed by a specialist contractor, under the terms of a Natural England General Licence. General Licences offer exemption from prosecution under the WCA1981 for named species and specific circumstances and are viewable on the Natural England website. They are not issued to people individually and one does not have to apply for them, however it is the responsibility of a property or business-owner to ensure they comply with the conditions spelled out in a General Licence. The relevant General Licence which permits removal of active Herring Gull nests and/or eggs during the breeding season is called GL05.The conditions for GL05 include:

  • It must be for reasons only of public health or public safety. (Nuisance, noise or mess are not legal reasons for removal.)
  • Other legal methods of resolving the public safety issue have been tried and were unsuccessful or impractical;
  • The conservation status of the species must not be harmed by the control measures.

A good example is where a gas flue is blocked by a Herring Gull nest, which would cause a build-up of harmful gases.

In relation to Kittiwakes, there is no General Licence permitting legal removal of active nests.  In practice this means that excluding the birds by proofing measures, installed before nesting begins are the only legal means for controlling Kittiwakes nesting on a building. For up to date legislation and advice please refer to the following:

DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs): 08459 33 55 77

Natural England: 08456 00 30 78 

Further advice on urban gulls and the law can also be found on the RSPB website.

What action can you take?

There are a variety of ways to legally help deter Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes from nesting on your property; some are more effective than others and the costs vary.

1. De-nesting

At the end of every nesting season (usually September until February) remove all nests and nesting material from your building. Note that it is unlawful to remove a Kittiwake nest once active i.e. as soon as the first new nesting material has been added.

2. Proofing buildings

Removing nests alone will not discourage the birds from coming back. The birds will build another nest the following spring. To prevent them nesting we recommend the proofing of affected buildings. A variety of methods may be used alone or in combination, but it is recommended to take specialist advice for your building, as each situation is different. Here are some options you could consider:

Bird exclusion netting

Fine netting with a maximum mesh size of 25mm may be fitted to buildings but it is crucial that it is installed correctly. The mesh should be kept taut on four sides to prevent birds’ wings becoming caught in the mesh. It is also important to maintain and regularly inspect the netting to prevent it from tearing or sagging otherwise birds can get behind it or even construct a nest on top of loose netting. More worryingly, there are examples of poorly-maintained netting entangling gulls, which may become injured or die of starvation as they are trapped and unable to feed. It is also important to make sure that all possible nesting and roosting sites on the roof, especially behind chimney stacks and building /window ledges, are protected.

Bird repellent gel (sometimes referred to as ‘fire gel’)

There are bird deterrent gels on the market, which are non-toxic, do not harm the birds and are much more discreet than netting. A commonly used product is called Ornaway Gel that can be applied on likely nesting surfaces, especially narrow linear features like ledges. Birds are deterred from landing on a surface by the smell of the gel, the UV light reflected from it and the feel of it. It is usually applied in small dishes at close intervals and claims to remain effective for at least two years even in harsh climates. The gels, applied through a cartridge gun are very cost effective compared to netting.

Bird spikes

Although some buildings have used pigeon spikes to deter Kittiwakes, there are some concerns. Kittiwakes build up sizeable nests year on year, adding to previous material. Examples are common where Kittiwakes have used the spikes to secure their nest to a ledge. Wider ledges may need several rows of spikes and even so the birds may attempt to build on top of the spikes. There are also instances where birds have become injured by standing on the spikes. Be wary that most pigeon spikes are not strong enough for larger gulls like Herring Gulls and more substantial stainless steel ones are recommended.

3. Who should do the work?

You can do winter proofing or winter nest clearing work yourself or engage someone else to do it for you. There are a number of pest control companies available to carry out proofing. Given that the work usually involves working at height, where special access platforms or safety equipment is needed it is advisable to use a trained contractor. You can find them on the internet, in the local papers, Yellow Pages or Thomson Local. (A contractor licensed to remove a nest can also be found this way, but if planning to use the General Licence, it is best to be certain yourself that the GL04 licence conditions have been met – do not take a contractor’s word for it –the property owner is still liable for prosecution if the licence is not properly used.

4. When should it be done?

Outside the nesting season, usually between September and February, but check for late-fledging birds and be sure the nests are no longer in use If you engage a company to do the job they will advise you further on your particular situation.

5. Who pays?

If you are the owner or occupier of an affected building the responsibility is yours for resolving any problem. Therefore, the cost of any works to resolve the problem will have to be met by the owner or occupier.

Planning – extensions and new buildings

If you are looking to apply for planning permission for either a new building, or to alter or extend an existing one, our planning team may be able to provide you with advice on measures to reduce or avoid the likelihood of gulls becoming an issue for you through the pre-application advice process, for which charges apply. Pre-application advice can be found at www.scarborough.gov.uk/planning

Be careful, it is illegal to interfere with the nests of most other types of seabirds as they are protected by law.

The work you do will be most effective if you take advice from professional persons or companies – DEFRA, Natural England or most pest control companies.

More importantly, the steps you take may be more effective if you join forces with your neighbours and it may keep the cost down. Don’t forget Herring Gulls are not only attracted by good nesting sites, they need food also, so limiting the availability of food sources is also important.