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Don’t let seagulls think you’re their meal ticket

Malcolm Bell remembered seeing a seagull outsmart an Alsatian at a pier in St Ives, a beautiful seaside village in Cornwall in Southwest England.

The dog’s owner threw the end of a Cornish pasty towards its pet tied to a seafront bench. Even straining at the leash, the Alsatian was about two inches short of getting to the discarded scrap of the region’s famed delicacy.

A seagull on a railing about ten feet away sat watching for a while. Then it calmy popped down and gobbled the pasty in front of the Alsatian’s eyes.

“Seagulls are intelligent creatures,” recalled the Executive Chair of Visit Cornwall.

“It realised the darling Alsatian couldn’t reach the pasty. ‘He’s not going to get to that so I’ll have it!’ You’ve got to admire them, but they are an interesting creature that you must be wary of and prepared for,” he said.

Mr Bell recounted the anecdote to emphasise just how sophisticated seagulls have become in Cornwall.

St Ives is known for many things – beautiful beaches, quality bars and restaurants, art galleries hidden away on cobbled streets – but it is renowned for the brazenness of its seagulls.

The problem of seagulls swooping on unsuspecting tourists, and locals, to snatch their food, is one that Galway shares with St Ives.

The prevalence of seagulls in City of the Tribes has led to more awareness and complaints. And while St Ives has been dealing with this issue for up to 30 years, Galway’s issue with seagulls is relatively recent.

In 2018, the then-Mayor of Galway, Councillor Niall McNelis called for a cull of seagulls because they had become such a nuisance.

Seagulls are protected species, here and in England, and so that was never going to happen. But the idea generated some public support, highlighting the growing negative sentiment towards these beautiful sea birds.

In 2021, Councillor McNelis doubled down on his anti-seagull remarks, when he called them ‘flying rats’. They had become more aggressive and were costing businesses through noise pollution (birds nesting on hotels were annoying guests in bedrooms), and soiling customers, he said.

Seagulls tend to sleep at night, but Galway’s gulls appear to be becoming nocturnal – they can be seen most weekends foraging for scraps of food from revellers who flock to fast-food restaurants and pizzerias after the pubs close at 2am in the city centre.

BirdWatch Ireland has repeatedly urged the public not to feed gulls in Galway.

The independent bird conservation group said gulls should fear humans – not be tapping them for food.

“Not feeding gulls is paramount; they mustn’t come to associate people with food. Wild animals need to have a healthy respect and fear for humans. They need to realise that humans aren’t an easy meal ticket,” said Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland.

This is advice that Malcolm Bell, in Cornwall, agreed with.

“The challenge with seagulls is theoretically they can live ‘til they’re 30 or 40, and they learn from each other. So various places around Cornwall, different seagulls have different techniques. But the ones in St Ives are the most sophisticated in mugging people,” explained Mr Bell.

Thirty years ago, there was “no real need for them to attack or prey on people”, he said, because back then there were more fish for seagulls to predate on because there were more fishermen operating out of the area. People fed them decades ago too and they could easily access food from bins and the local dump.

Now there’s less fishing, the bin bags are seagull proof, and incineration has replaced its landfill sites, meaning gulls had to change tack to source food.

“I think it was a bit of evolution – they decided ‘well we’ll have to take the food’. If you notice, gulls will mob each other for food. There’s a natural trait when that’s the only way of getting food,” he said.

Mr Bell said his advice to Galway, and authorities such as local authorities here who are concerned about reducing seagull nuisance, is to “remind people not to feed them”.

“The other one is warning people not to have food on show, or if you are eating a Cornish pasty, keep it close to you. When you don’t have it in your mouth, keep your hands over it. They’re not stupid, they won’t attack if they don’t think they’re going to get anywhere,” he said.

He said Galway could follow St Ives’ lead and install signs advising people not to feed seagulls and to mind their food.

“It’s a matter of coping; it’s about warning people to watch their food and not to feed the birds. You can have quirky and fun signs – but it is also important for people who are selling takeaway food to remind people the gulls are pretty quick, and be on your guard,” he said.

Pictured: Food for thought…a seagull cosies up to Pádraic Ó Conaire in Eyre Square. Photo: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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