This year, even more so than in the past, Stonehaven is in a right mess; seagull mess, that is.
I first spoke in the Scottish Parliament about this problem in November 2002 and little did I think then that, nearly 12 years later, no-one has yet accepted responsibility for the problem; not even our own Aberdeenshire Council.
The nuisance, noise and mess associated with seagulls—primarily herring gulls—is a real problem for everyone in the coastal communities around the north-east of Scotland. The seagull problem has been raised with me many times by constituents here in Stonehaven and by community councils in the Angus towns of Arbroath and Montrose where the problem is also reaching crisis levels.
Although the problem is treated as a bit of a joke by those who have not had the experience of living under a colony of large avian scavengers, the experience can seriously affect the quality of life of people who live and work in the affected areas. The noise, the smell, and often the threat of attack, can give the impression that we are living out our lives on the set of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Heaven only knows what our summer visitors must think.
Then there is the damage to property. We all know the mess that can be made of a car overnight if you park it in one of these breeding colonies but take a look up at the roof-tops. At the top are the white streaks near where the birds roost and nest. Then there are the nests themselves, piled up on every flat roof. Further down is the green growth, often lifting and parting the slates. Lower down still, where the waste matter has begun to accumulate, are the choked valleys and gutters which, at the height of a rain storm, pour water into the street or, once in my own experience, up under the slates and into the house!
I’m told that, up until 1995-96, Angus Council provided a free service for the removal of gulls’ nests and eggs from buildings in parts of Arbroath. Although the council acknowledged that it was an effective and humane way of controlling the seagull population, the policy was ultimately discontinued for funding reasons.
Since then, however, it appears that the gull population and the problems that are associated with it have increased again. Partially as a result of this information, they have since introduced a number of new measures to tackle the problem, including signs requesting the public to refrain from feeding gulls—a major cause of the problem—in areas of particular difficulty. They have also published a booklet on controlling roof-nesting gulls.
Aberdeen City Council has been a leader in taking forward the practice of taking deterrent action on all council-owned property where gulls nest or roost. It must be said however, that when it comes to the powers available for taking action against gulls, local authorities still have a number of options under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
It seems that some Local Authorities take this responsibility more seriously than others, while others fall back on lame excuses or, worse still, fail to take the matter seriously while failing to understand the health risks, their own responsibilities or even the powers they have to take action.
If we were being over-run by a plague of rats, we might find that our local authorities would feel obliged to take some action, on the grounds of public health if nothing else. It seems that the purposes for which our local councils were first convened are no longer considered a suitable priority.
The once proud herring gull has seen its fortunes tumble in recent decades. The population explosion in predators means that our cliff-tops are now the preserve of foxes and buzzards; certainly no place for a seagull to rear its young.
A fishing industry which is no longer permitted to discharge its by-products into the environment has left no living for a sea gull, other than raiding our bins or perhaps taking up residence as a scavenger on a land fill site, but we’re closing them down too.
They have become wholly dependent on human beings for protection and their livelihood. We have reduced them to the status of parasites and vermin. We have destroyed their lives and they have come to live with us in our town centres which they treat like some kind of refugee camp.
Action must be taken now, before expensive solutions are forced upon us. As we once again reach that time of year when the young begin to fall into the streets, only to be run over by traffic and gathered by the street sweeper in the morning, would not a little leadership go a long way?