It’s usually the summer when the seagull stories begin.
But on Wednesday, at Dublin City Council’s environment committee, independent Councillor Mannix Flynn proposed a cull of seagulls, which he says “literally have the run of the city”.
A motion from Fine Gael Councillor Norma Sammon calling for the council to set up a forum including experts to examine options for culling the birds, submitted last April, will likely come up in the council in the coming months.
“Herring Gulls are a nuisance throughout the city causing problems such as noise pollution, attacking people and pets, fouling, damage to property and picking apart plastic rubbish bags left for collection,” Sammon says in her motion.
But what culling might mean, and whether it is the best option for reducing the number of seagulls in the city is far from agreed.
For Stephen Roche, the owner of Dublin Falconry, which works in pest control, it’s clear what part of the solution is.
He says he and his colleagues are just waiting for the official nod to start shooting the birds.
“We have the shotguns, we have the air rifles, we are ready to do our job. We just need permission from the government to go and get started,” he says.
Roche says he killed around 10,000 pigeons last year, trapping them and wringing their necks.
But pest controllers are not allowed to kill seagulls or disturb their nests, because they are a protected species, he says.
Bird Watch Ireland’s Senior Seabird Conservation Officer, Stephen Newton, says he would oppose any cull.
The seagulls, which are really called herring gulls, are native to Ireland and are protected for a reason, he says.
Counts have shown them to be in serious decline, although the counts are flawed because they take place along the coast rather than in urban areas, he said.
The rural gulls come under the remit of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, but it is unclear who has responsibility for the seagulls that live in the city, said Newton.
Before anybody even thinks of culling them, there needs to be a comprehensive study of them, says Newton. “We need to know how many of we have. Otherwise we don’t have a baseline to work from.”
If some birds were culled, others would just be ready to take up the space anyway, he says. It would have to be “absolutely widespread and very dramatic” to have an effect, he says.
Both Roche and Newton agree that humans are to blame for the influx of seagulls to the city: they’ve made food too readily available.
“People have to become aware and stop throwing food around,” says Roche.
While that’s a pull, humans are also pushing seagulls away from the sea, having overfished and reduced their traditional food source, says Newton.
Towns and cities are also warm and sheltered, making them good for nesting, Newton says. But if food weren’t so easy for gulls to find in cities, they would move on, he says.
At the recent environment committee meeting, Dublin City Council Manager Vincent Norton said the council is looking at a pilot project to strengthen rubbish bags.
The ones used at the moment aren’t tough enough, and seagulls rip them open.
Sammon, who is proposing that the council look at culling the birds, says she was petitioned on the issue by a seriously unhappy constituent, who complained of finding seagull excrement on his driveway and car.
Roche says he gets calls from householders from Skerries to Killiney, who want to quiet gulls that squawk from the early hours. He flies his hawks and scares away the gulls, but as soon as he leaves they return, he says.
As seagulls are a protected species, if the city council were to decide to cull them, they would need to apply for a special derogation from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, says Roche.
If the National Parks and Wildlife Service approved a cull, there would be other options to mass shootings.
In the UK, seagulls are culled in certain areas by destroying their nests and eggs. Bird Watch Ireland’s Newton doubts that would work well.
“Even if you remove their nests, they will just move to your neighbour’s house. You are just shifting the problem locally,” he says.
Besides, before any of that happens, we need to count how many there are, Newton says.
“Let’s work that out before we start talking about shooting or dramatic scaring, or removing nests, or putting holes in eggs or oiling eggs,” says Newton.