99% drop in breeding pairs of gulls at Suffolk site

4:00 PM May 5, 2022

Urban seagulls aren’t everyone’s favorite bird – loud, seen to be aggressive, and sometimes known to steal a fry or ice cream.

But as these gulls grow in seaside areas, in Suffolk a project is underway to help a type of gull that has seen a huge 99% drop in its population at a coastal site.

Orford Ness watchers have seen the number of lesser gull pairs drop from 20,000 breeding pairs in the 1990s after the MoD left to just 210 pairs last year.

Great Black-backed Gull
– Credit: National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

Now a new project has been launched with the help of two new Seagull Officers at the National Trust’s Orford Ness Nature Reserve, funded by the Galloper Offshore Wind Farm.

The decline of the black-backed gull – a large gull, identified by its dark gray to black back and wings, yellow beak and yellow legs – is thought to be largely due to increased human disturbance.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) in flight over the sea, Trevose Head, Cornwall.

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) in flight over the sea
– Credit: National Trust Images/Nick Upto

The large, secluded expanse of rare, vegetated shingle at Orford Ness provides the perfect nesting habitat for gulls and many other rare and special birds, but in recent years the area has seen a significant increase in human activity and unauthorized access.

It is hoped that by protecting these natural breeding grounds at Orford Ness there will be an increase in the number of breeding pairs and successful fledging of chicks, in order to establish a healthy colony of gulls along the cobble spit .

Black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) nest with eggs at Orford Ness

Black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) nest with eggs at Orford Ness. An old shoe and a plastic tie are used by birds as markers.
– Credit: NTPL/Paul Wakefield

Emma Hay, nature conservation specialist for the National Trust, said: ‘It is unclear why the numbers have fallen so dramatically and there will have been a number of factors at play which have led to this decline , including an increase in human activity at the site over the past 20 years.

“Disturbance has almost certainly affected breeding gull numbers, despite careful visitor management. In recent years we have seen their numbers decline even further, which means we need to do more to protect them.”

Reuben Denton-Beasley and Angus Barnett are the two new seagull officers who have been brought on board to work on the 10-mile remote coastal strip.

For Angus, his love of birds has taken him all over the world, but this new role gives him the chance to make a difference closer to home.

Angus Barnett at Orford Ness.

Angus Barnett at Orford Ness.
– Credit: National Trust Images / Andrew Capell

He said: I have always admired gulls for their adaptability to living in all sorts of habitats and climates. From urban to coastal or tropical to arctic conditions, they are survivors just like us. I really hope that my role can help determine where they are most disturbed, where they are going and how we can help them recover.

Reuben said: “I am delighted that the birds are starting to nest on the Ness, which marks the real start of the project. I will be working with the local community to raise awareness and help spread the word about the importance of protecting the Less gulls are an integral part of British coastal wildlife and need to be protected as much as any other species, it’s something I’m hugely passionate about.

Glen Pearce, property operations manager at Orford Ness, said while the trust wants visitors to enjoy the Ness, he urged them to help protect the fragile environment by respecting marked trails and following signage to ensure protection of breeding habitats.

Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) adult at its breeding colony

Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) adult
– Credit: National Trust Images / Nick Upton