I hope that this debate will be enlightening for you, Mr. Amess. As Mr. Foster highlighted in a similar Adjournment debate last year, there is far more to the issue than meets the eye. I hope that people will realise the importance of this debate; I have had a couple of days' leg-pulling about it. A few colleagues have asked, "Is that really the title of your Adjournment debate?"
"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea".
Perhaps Eric Cantona had a better understanding of seagulls and their behaviour than the rest of us, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and our local authorities. As any aficionado of debates on this subject will know from the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath last year, the problem is a serious and growing one for many of our town centres and, increasingly, for our suburban communities, for reasons that I will flesh out with evidence.
Good research has been done locally by Julie Wight and Gill Ragon of Gloucester city council, to whom I pay tribute for their help and support in pulling information together. Health and safety and aggression were two issues discussed by the hon. Member for Bath during his debate. Both are pertinent when we consider the effect of seagulls on businesses in Gloucester city centre.
Gloucester has about 2,800 breeding pairs of seagulls. Urban seagulls did not really exist before the second world war. Landfill has made a difference, as has the birds' desire to find somewhere warmer, and cities and towns are 3° to 6° C warmer than their natural rural habitats. They are also light in the evenings, giving birds the opportunity to feed and scavenge at night-time.
In our city centre, as well as in Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Aberdeenshire, urban seagulls' behaviour is becoming far more aggressive. To cite one example from the Daily Mirror:
"A terrified woman in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire was left drenched in blood after a seagull protecting its young dive-bombed her. Jean Wemyss, 68, had to have a one-inch gash in her head glued after the attack. 'It felt like someone had hit me with a rock.'"
Seagulls have a 41/2-foot wingspan when fully grown, weigh 2 lb and can reach speeds of 40 mph when they dive-bomb. They are a threat, and they are becoming braver and bolder in their activities. As seagulls' numbers grow, many cities throughout the country are having the same problems as Gloucester. Bird droppings on the pavements of our city centres cause hazards and cleaning costs, and mess on tables has hygiene consequences for bars, restaurants and outdoor dining. Scavenging is also a problem. Birds regularly tear up bags, open bins and make a mess and run away with food when they can find it. Sometimes they actually take food from plates. Aggressive behaviour is also a problem.
We believe that Gloucester has two colonies of seagulls. One is centred on Hempstead tip, close to the city centre, although those in the know at the local authority believe that in addition to those, a lot of other seagulls are migrating to the city centre. We are also struggling with another flock of seagulls in an area adjacent to the Bristol road, a more suburban location. A number of businesses have been in touch with me.
I went down to the area some months ago with a sense of incredulity, not knowing more than anybody else what to make of it. I visited the Cotswold Motor Group, which sells BMWs and Minis, to see the impact of seagulls on that business and surrounding businesses. It costs the Cotswold Motor Group £500 to re-spray a car. The seagulls in that area, particularly when they are roosting or have young, attack vehicles as they come into the forecourt.
I never knew until I had a biology lesson down at the Cotswold Motor Group that seagull droppings become more acidic as seagulls grow more upset. Droppings on cars must be removed within a couple of hours or they can erode paintwork, which costs a lot of money. The owners of the garage have considered moving elsewhere to get away from the seagulls, as they must employ people to wash their cars every day. Keeping the premises clean has an impact on them and surrounding businesses.
Why have thousands of seagulls flocked to the area? Having been on the roof of that business's premises and looked down on the other buildings in the estate, I can only imagine that the old-fashioned stone-clad buildings resemble seagulls' natural habitat of cliffs. Perhaps that is part of the reason why they are living in the area.
We need more research to understand why the seagulls are coming to the area. The expert Peter Rock has been in touch with a number of MPs and local authorities about the issue. He tells us that there are about 130,000 to 150,000 breeding pairs of seagulls in this country in urban and, increasingly, suburban areas. That could increase to more than 1 million over the next 10 years. It could have a massive impact on local businesses as well as residents in terms of mess, droppings and the shrill noise that the birds make.
What should we do about it? First, we must do more research, which needs a little investment by the Department. I will encourage my hon. Friend, who is a good listening Minister, to tackle his officials, who I know had a good meeting a couple of months ago to discuss the issue with the Government office for the south-west, DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Natural England and some local authorities. However, from my feedback at that meeting, it seems that they never got beyond the subject of research.
Several universities, including the university of western England and Bristol university, are interested in conducting research on the subject. A few tens of thousands of pounds' investment would help us understand better the birds' habitats, why they come to urban areas and what methods work to tackle the nuisance. I am not proposing a cull or asking my hon. Friend to find money for local authorities to do clean-up work. In my area, the officials that I mentioned have been involved in about £7,000 to £8,000 of work every year-the problem is growing, so they probably need more-but if they knew exactly what would work in the first place, thanks to a little research, they could save money and help business.
What solutions have been mooted? There are a range of them, and it has been an education hearing about some. The traditional method of bird-scaring is falconry, but I understand that most veteran seagulls these days are not intimidated by falcons, not seeing them as genuine birds of prey that will kill or attack them. Falconry has had a limited effect. Even where it has worked, it has merely moved the problem from one urban area or suburb to another. There has been some success with using loudspeakers to imitate distress calls to encourage the birds to move on. However, that solution simply moves the problem to another area.
Egg removal and egg oiling have been tried. Egg oiling has had some success in Gloucester city where 1,100 eggs were oiled last year so that the chicks did not hatch and become fully grown seagulls. Despite that work, the number of seagulls has grown massively year on year. Caging and proofing have been tried. Proofing work includes putting up nets and spikes. The pedestrianised area in Gloucester city centre is awash with nets and spikes above shops, which is rather unsightly. The measure has been tried for a number of years, but we still have the recurring problem. More exotic solutions have been tried such as helium balloons and plastic owls. You will be sorry to hear, Mr Amess, that the plastic owls have made no difference whatsoever.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds must have been spent across the country. From Gloucester and the Minister's constituency down the road, to Aberdeenshire, this is a growing national problem. As I mentioned, Peter Rock's figures suggest that there could be 1 million urban and suburban seagulls within a decade.
If the solutions I have mentioned are not the right ones, what are? The officials at Gloucester city council tell me that research could aid and assist them. One imaginative solution being pressed at the moment is laser torches being flashed at seagulls when they are roosting. That stops them from settling on the eggs so that the eggs go cold and the next generation of seagulls does not hatch. Before we invest in that, we need to know whether it is likely to work. That goes back to the important point of funding a little research.
The council tells me, and I am sure it is right, that partly because of the availability of food and partly because of night-time light and temperatures, urban gulls produce about three eggs a year, whereas in the wild gulls produce just one egg every three years. That is a stark difference. We need to understand the nature of the problem better.
What seems on the surface to be a rather jokey and amusing subject for an Adjournment debate impacts on the lives of a lot of residents in my constituency, on local authorities and their funds, and on local businesses. I do not want Cotswold Motor Group or other businesses in the suburbs and town centres to move away. At the same time, I am an animal lover and am not calling for culls. We must know what we can do to restrict the size of these populations and ensure that the behaviour of gulls is not as aggressive as it has become.
As I said at the outset, Eric Cantona said:
"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea".
I do not know whether that is true and I suspect that the Minister does not know either. Perhaps he could commit to a little investment in the matter. He may not be able to make the commitment today, but I hope he will have a good conversation with his officials. I have had encouraging conversations about the meeting between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government office for the south-west that happened a couple of months ago, but there is a feeling that they need to go further. We must invest in the kind of research that will make a difference for the long term.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda on securing this debate. As Minister with responsibility for rural affairs, I welcome this opportunity to discuss the impact of urban gull populations on business. This is not a joke, but a serious issue. The impacts that he describes exist and they can be distressing and concerning for those who are affected.
I recognise that gulls can be problematic when found in high density in urban areas, such as in Gloucester, Bristol, Bath, Taunton and Cardiff. This is a widespread problem. I also recognise that measures need to be taken to mitigate such problems in an appropriate and proportionate manner.
We must have regard to the conservation status of gulls because some species are protected. It is interesting that despite the appearance that gulls are thriving in urban areas, UK breeding populations of herring gulls have declined by 69 per cent. since 1969 and winter populations have declined by more than 50 per cent. in the past 25 years. As a result, the herring gull is listed as a biodiversity action plan priority species and in the latest British Trust for Ornithology report, it meets the qualifying criteria for red listing as a bird of conservation concern. The great black-backed gull is a scarce breeding species in England with a breeding population of fewer than 1,500 pairs. With wintering populations declining, it meets the qualifying criteria for amber listing as a bird of conservation concern. Although I understand my hon. Friend's point, there is a decline in some gull species.
I appreciate the Minister's statistics and am sure that they are well sourced. I had a conversation just this morning with the hon. Member for Bath, who fears that some of the statistics being used by officials in the Department relate more to the rural gull population and are out of kilter with the experience of local authorities. Perhaps it would be possible to look again at this matter. We could send the Minister information in writing so that his officials can take a closer look at whether the statistics are accurate.
I would be happy to receive anything my hon. Friend wishes to send. I spoke to Mr. Foster briefly yesterday to say that this debate was taking place and receive his input. Unfortunately, he cannot be here today.
As a member state of the European Union, the UK has an obligation to conserve wild bird populations. As my hon. Friend will be aware, that is fulfilled through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which protects all wild birds. However, as I said, I recognise his concerns about gulls in Gloucester in the Bristol road area and the city centre. In specific circumstances, the 1981 Act allows people to apply for a licence from Natural England to take action to control bird species where they cause difficulties and there are no other satisfactory solutions. Action may be taken if Natural England grants a licence for purposes such as preventing the spread of disease, preserving air safety, which my hon. Friend mentioned, conserving wild birds and preserving public health and safety.
A build-up of gull populations to problem levels is usually the result of the presence of readily accessible food and the availability of suitable habitats for roosting or breeding. Those are the two key components. There is often food in excess of what gulls would find in the wild and places for them to live. Although licensed control of bird populations can provide temporary relief, efforts must be maintained to remove the food and the access to the habitat that attracts them.
Access to food is the single most important factor in boosting gull populations. If it can be denied, the problem may be resolved without recourse to other measures. I urge all local authorities and businesses to help address this problem by avoiding the spillage of foodstuffs, keeping food storage areas secure and bird proof-that is easily said, but it is what needs to be done-making sure that disposal and waste facilities are kept clean and tidy, and limiting or preventing the deliberate feeding of birds by the public, which still takes place in many areas. I have heard that local authorities in Devon and Cornwall, for example, have had good results by using hessian sacks for rubbish disposal, which deters gulls from accessing the food. Obviously, gulls can peck through plastic bags more easily than hessian ones.
Natural England can provide advice on other deterrents, such as proofing buildings-my hon. Friend referred to that in Gloucester-and installing netting or metal spikes on buildings to discourage roosting and nesting. Although I accept that such measures are not the whole answer, they are a significant part of the solution. It is only by eliminating the things that gulls find so attractive in our towns and cities that we can hope to find a longer-term solution. The reality is that gulls live for a long time-many can live as long as 20 years-and they are not unintelligent animals, so they learn and modify their behaviour when we put up plastic owls or whatever it might be. Gulls are able to realise what is genuinely a threat to their way of life and what they can ignore.
In addition to controlling the availability of food and preventing roosting, I understand that licensed control methods have been effective. I completely share my hon. Friend's concern for animal welfare. We are not advocating something that is cruel and unkind, but there may be situations in which, as a last resort, it might be necessary to take other lines of action. I stress that the licensed control system should be considered only if earlier attempts to manage problems have been shown to be ineffective.
General licences that are used for activities that carry a low risk for the conservation or welfare of the protected species can be issued. Personal licences may also be issued for certain other controlled activities. The licensing authority-Natural England-must make sure that the licences it issues are appropriate and take account of the risk of the activities licensed and the conservation status of the species concerned. For that reason, in January this year, following consultation, Natural England amended the relevant general licences and removed the herring gull from almost all general licences. However, it has continued to allow the destruction of nests and eggs of herring gulls to preserve public health and safety. Lesser black-backed gulls may still be controlled for a number of reasons, including to prevent serious damage to livestock and crops and the spread of disease, or for air safety reasons. That reflects the need to mitigate the problems that the herring and lesser black-backed gulls can cause in certain situations and to provide a licensing regime that is not overly burdensome.
For great black-backed gulls, a general licence is now available only for the purpose of preserving air safety. I stress that, although there has been a reduction in the available general licences, it is still none the less possible to apply for an individual licence to control those species where they are causing problems. Natural England has struck a sensible and proportionate balance between protecting species and recognising the issues that can arise in areas where species may be over-abundant.
However, occasionally it is clear that licensed controls will be necessary. For example, in the breeding season from April to August, removing eggs under licence and replacing them with dummy eggs can reduce urban gull populations if deployed over the longer term and, in the short term, that can reduce the likelihood of attacks from aggressive gulls. My hon. Friend rightly highlighted that in his opening remarks. Those methods have had some success in urban areas, including, I believe, in Gloucester.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, my officials in DEFRA's Bristol office recently met officials from local authorities in the south-west, including Gloucester, to discuss the issue. Natural England also attended that meeting. I hope that experiences can continue to be shared and best practice developed to address the problems sometimes caused by urban gulls. If there are lessons to be learned-no doubt there will be some-about alternative techniques that are successful, I encourage local authorities to share that information between them. However, we must not rely on a licensing approach to control gull populations that will provide only a temporary solution to the problem.
My hon. Friend is being assiduous and thorough in his response. I would like to probe him on the issue of the academic research that might help us to ensure we get the best bang for our buck in terms of the investment that local authorities make. Will he consider having further discussions with his officials about looking into academic research? The other key area relates to where local authorities can come together. A forum is up and running, but what other support can the Government provide to ensure that it is a success?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I can certainly say to him that, in general terms, we do not feel that additional research is necessary. We feel that we know quite a lot about the subject. That is certainly sufficient to highlight the two key areas that I pointed out in my earlier remarks: excess food being available to gulls, and places to live, roost and so on. However, his point about laser torches is interesting. I will talk to my officials about that, because it is something I would like to explore further. Any information that he can provide about that would be useful. The only obvious hazard with laser torches is that they may affect aircraft. He will be aware that there have been well-documented cases of people deliberately trying to distract pilots using powerful laser instruments. That matter needs proper consideration and I thank him for raising it with me.
As I was saying, lessons need to be learned about alternative techniques and we need to encourage local authorities to share best practice when they find it works in their areas. The issue requires local authorities to work collaboratively and over a sustained period. That can be helped greatly by limiting the sources of food and making adjustments to buildings, so that gulls do not find such a warm welcome in cities such as Gloucester, as well as other cities and areas across the country. I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this important debate.
My hon. Friend, his officials and I may differ in that although I understand what he is saying and it is common sense to suggest that the gulls will gravitate to areas where food is available, that confuses the matter with regards to the Cotswold Motor Group and the industrial estates around there. Those are not the best places for gulls to gravitate to for food, yet they have done so, which implies that we need to understand more about their behaviour if we are going to be able to do more to help those local businesses.
I hear clearly what my hon. Friend says, but my officials feel that we have a lot of information about the nature of gull behaviour. We still keep coming back to the factors of food source and places to roost. I do not know enough about the particular instance he cited to say whether that is applicable. If he could drop me a note, I will certainly look at the matter and talk to my officials. I will also ask them to consider the laser torch idea that he proposes, because that sounds as if it has some merit and should be given due consideration.