EUROPE'S leading authority on seagulls has hit out against the recent media storm regarding the birds instead claiming they are misunderstood.

Peter Rock, who has studied herring gulls since 1980, spoke exclusively to The Argus after David Cameron called for a "big conversation" on how to deal with them.

The Primer Minister's plea came after a series of attacks which have appeared in the press including incidents involving dogs and children.

There are calls from many for a cull of the birds, but Mr Rock said the action would be fraught with difficulties.

He said: “Urban gulls are not understood at all. They are not thugs. They do whatever they can to avoid physical conflict."

Referring to a recent newspaper story, he added: “That bird swallowing a rat was a great black-backed gull, the largest of the gull species. It's a monster of a thing. We can all get photographs of birds doing awful things.”

Across his 35 years studying seagulls he has monitored almost 8,000 of the birds by attaching rings to their legs.

Among one of the recent national newspapers reports included one expert warning a gull could soon kill a baby.

Mr Rock, who is based in Bristol, laughed at the suggestion.

He said: “They are not going to fly off with a baby in their beaks and eat them, and it’s unlikely that a baby will be killed.

“All of the noise we are hearing in the newspapers concerns urban gulls – they are in-your-face and in Brighton you know how in-your-face they are.

“People’s sleep deprivation is a particular complaint because of the noise.”

Mr Rock recently wrote for a local newspaper in Bristol asking readers for their own experiences with seagulls.

He said: “Really, I was inviting complaints. Within three days I’d had 150 emails and noise was the number-one complaint without a doubt.”

He said the current problem with herring gulls is one humans have invited, citing the 1956 Clean Air Act, in which waste was no longer allowed to be burnt by landfill owners.

He added: “That provided a wonderful opportunity for the gulls – in fact it wasn’t just an opportunity, it was an absolute bonanza.

“When you look back on it, it’s completely obvious. Buildings are like steep cliffs with no predators and towns are warmer.”

The last comprehensive study of seagulls revealed 239 colonies nationally.

Mr Rock has so far found 472 since then and he has not finished counting. A colony ranges from two pairs up to more than 3,000.

He said the first step towards understanding seagulls in Brighton and Hove and along the Sussex coast, was counting them.

He said: “We have to find out how many Brighton and Hove has got. That’s a basic standpoint. And then find out exactly where they are.

"That’s another useful thing. I do that by assessing populations."

He added: “I’m the only person who has been studying these birds. Nobody else is actively doing it.”

Among his more distant forecasts are that residents defending their homes against herring gulls could result in neighbours claiming against each other when the birds move from one roof to the next.

He said: “It may well be that in a litigious society there will be people who would do that kind of thing.”

One of the other seagull scare stories in the media in recent weeks is that the birds will get bigger in the future.

He has ruled this out but said younger birds might get bigger quicker.

He said: “They are at the high end of avian intelligence. They know everything there is to know about what’s happening there – not just the food, but how to wash and where to sleep.

"They have brilliant eyesight. All we are doing is presenting them with a bigger opportunity.

“People have their own clear ideas of what’s causing and sustaining a growth in gulls. People think it’s the takeaways that keep them going.

"Say Brighton has 1,000 pairs – we don’t know, but let’s say – and each one of those is attempting to look after three young: we have automatically more than doubled the number of birds needing food.”

Mr Rock is now looking to come down to Sussex and gauge the seagull populations. He also wants to see a reinstatement of axed funding from Defra.

He said: “If we are going to understand this, we really have got to get the research done.

“I’m interested in the science and want to make an intervention which is meaningful.”


IN May, a pet owner was left distraught after her beloved dog was killed by seagulls.

Nikki Wayne, 57, of Honiton, Devon, found her chihuahua puppy Bella being attacked by the angry birds in her back garden.

Bella had managed to nudge open a slightly ajar door after being kept inside and was killed by the seagulls.

Then, on July 15, an eight-year-old Yorkshire terrier was pecked to death in St Columb Minor, near Newquay, Cornwall.

The dog was attacked in the garden of its owner’s home, leaving it with a wound to his head and brain damage. The birds are believed to have been protecting their nest.

Weeks later, seagulls swooped on Stig the tortoise, who belonged to Jan Byrne, 43, from Liskeard in Cornwall. Stig sadly died two days later from the attack. Ms Byrne said: “They turned him over and were pecking at him. We were devastated.”

Humans were next to be attacked. A four-year-old boy from St Ives, Cornwall, almost lost a finger, while a pensioner in nearby Helston was dive-bombed by gulls who pecked her head, drawing blood.

Prime Minister David Cameron entered the debate on July 17 when he said there needed to be a “big conversation” about the recent spate of attacks.

He said: “I think a big conversation needs to happen about this. Reading the papers ... about how aggressive the seagulls are now in St Ives for instance, we do have a problem.”

A campaigner in Exeter then warned that if seagulls are not controlled they will start killing babies.

At the weekend, two Brighton lifeguards sent a letter to The Sunday Times to warn that gulls had developed sophisticated techniques to steal food from beach-goers.

The pair, named only as Becca and Ash, said the gulls had worked out women were more likely to drop food if they were spooked.

As a result “gull gangs” target women before a lone bird attacks, causing the victim to drop her food. The rest of the birds then swoop and take the food.

The lifeguards told the national paper that they deal with several gull-related injuries each week.

Simon Prentis, of the Gull Awareness Group, has urged the Government to tackle the problem birds. He said: “If somebody were to leave a baby sleeping in an unattended pram or a pushchair – it happens. I would not wish it on anybody, but we’re headed in that direction.”