Battle of Balbriggan: Locals in a flap over seagulls

Residents of north Dublin village can remove eggs and nests but schoolgirls blame litter

"We don't really agree with what they are doing. Seagulls are on the red list, so they are endangered," says Kirsty Burns, one of three students at Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan whose study of seagull behaviour has appeared at the Young Scientist Exhibition.

 

Balbriggan is the subject of an experiment, one that has been provoked by years of complaints from locals about the behaviour of the gulls that have congregated in the north Dublin village in recent years.

From May 1st, the Government has sanctioned the local community, if they are brave enough, to remove the gulls’ nests and their eggs, temporarily circumventing EU protections – but not to kill adult birds.

Many locals have become increasingly irritated by the birds, but others believe the latest move is heavy-handed: “It’s definitely a problem for people on the beach; they swoop down,” says Kara Bissett as she sweeps the pathway outside Morelli’s ice cream parlour.

Bissett says such incidents are not uncommon; her children were targeted in their back garden and she put up nets to stop it happening: “They were terrified. I have had them swoop at me before; it’s not a very nice experience.”

Loreto girls’ school in the town is quite familiar with the tempers raised by the birds. Sometimes 200 birds can gather in its courtyard at lunchtime. Falcon kites and sound devices to scare them off have been tried – as many as 200 birds can gather in the courtyard at lunchtime.

However, three pupils in the school have taken to studying the problem, rather than complain about their birds. So far, their work has appeared at the Young Scientist Exhibition. Next month, it will go to the Young Environmentalists Finals.

“When we came into first year it was a huge conversation topic. There were all these stories about student having their lunch stolen,” explains Cleo Gallen, one of the 14 year olds behind the research. “They are fearless,” adds her friend, Enya Andersen.

Driven inland

Despite this, their extensive project reaches conclusions that do not include removing nests or eggs. “We don’t really agree right now with what they are doing. Seagulls are on the red list [of conservation concern] so they are endangered,” says Kirsty Burns.

Instead, the three girls believe that the proper disposal of litter in the town and better public education would help to make Balbriggan less attractive for the birds, who have been driven inland because of falling fish stocks.

The decision to clear the way for nest removals and egg kills by the Minister for Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Heather Humphreys came following ever-mounting local calls that something had to be done.

Seagulls are protected by the EU Birds Directive. Member states can make exceptions in certain circumstances, including damage to crops, livestock and fauna or a threat to public health and safety.

The Wild Bird Declaration, running from this May to next April, allows people remove nests, but culling is not permitted. The initiative is clearly marked as a pilot scheme, limited to Balbriggan. The results will be reviewed next year.

Natural habitat

Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee, a self-described environmentalist, has called for action to be taken, but she is not yet convinced by the department’s approach.

“I never mentioned culling or removing nests. The problem is they came inland to feed in the dump that humans created so if we could [just] get them back out to their natural habitat,” she says. She told the Seanad recently that the closure five years ago of the Balleally dump had led to seagulls drifting to housing estates in search of food.

Dr Stephen Newton, seabird conservation officer at Birdwatch Ireland, does not favour removing nests and eggs. Instead, the town should be kept free of litter, particularly waste food. Contrary to public belief, the herring gull population has fallen dramatically – it is down 90 per cent.

GULL PROBLEMS ELSEWHERE

The Royal Mail delayed deliveries in Cumbria because of “swooping attacks by seagulls” on its staff.

Scientists in the UK are exploring biological controls on the gulls’ numbers, and using lasers to deter their settling in urban areas.

Helston Community College in Cornwall began flying hawks to frighten gulls away.

In the Cornish town of Truro and in Devon there were calls for fines for anyone caught feeding the birds.

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