“Everyone has a gull story to tell,” says Professor Will Cresswell of St Andrews University.
But the problem is how individuals see St Andrews’ issues with the gull population isn’t an objective basis from which to decide how to deal with the problems they create – like droppings, opened litter sacks, aggressive behaviour by parent birds and stealing food from alfresco café tables.
These might often just be the products of human behaviour such as leaving bin bags out too early, feeding fledgling gulls or not clearing street tables promptly.
So, as part of the ‘Clean and Green’ section of the BID St Andrews Business Plan, it’s commissioned a scientific study of gull (and human) activity in the town centre BID area.
It’s being carried out by one of Professor Cresswell’s students in the Department of Biology. You may have already seen 22-year-old Grania Smith pounding the pavements six days a week with her hi-vis vest, notepad, binoculars and stopwatch.
Since the end of last month she’s been walking up to 90 miles a week 6am till noon, then 1pm to 4pm collecting data on the key areas which need to be measured – such as the number and species of gulls, where they’re nesting, what they’re eating, locations of rubbish, and whether the gulls are eating rubbish or food being eaten on the street.
Grania, whose report will be her 4th Year Dissertation, is so dedicated to the job she spends each Sunday collating the data collected that week. It’s a far cry from the nature walks she’s done with Suffolk Wildlife Trust at home in Bury St Edmunds, but it’s a job she’s relishing.
The resulting report, including a ‘hotspot’ and species map, will be instrumental in deciding what BID and its partners will do next to address ‘the gull problem.’
Professor Cresswell says: “Like BID St Andrews and town businesses and residents, we know that conflicts such as gulls nesting and feeding in towns can be important to both the humans and wildlife concerned, which is why it’s important to survey it properly. This is a great first step because you need accurate information to tackle any issue in the most effective way.”
Studies elsewhere in Scotland have found that gulls are long-lived (25-30 years) with complex behaviours and require long-term, flexible management strategies. A key part of urban gull management is careful monitoring and evaluation.
By gathering accurate information at key stages we have a better chance of ensuring future gull management activities are appropriate and deployed and/or adapted to ensure maximum effectiveness. The study commissioned will provide baseline data with which to compare the effectiveness of any strategy to control the problem.
Another key success factor is taking a ‘whole-town’ approach – or gulls may simply move from an ‘action area’ to a neighbouring one. Which is why BID St Andrews is ideal to co-ordinate all the interested parties.
Once Grania’s report has been received, expected to be in October, BID St Andrews will work with an expert to interpret the findings and with all concerned to decide on how best to tackle the gull and human issues identified. The result will be an Action Plan based on best practice research and management. Possible solutions could include wider use of the ‘gull-proof’ sacks, which are already being used, and their effectiveness , which is being monitored during the current survey.
A further result, at least for Grania, will hopefully be a good degree result – the research will form part of her dissertation which makes up 50% of her BSc classification. She says: “I’m very excited to be undertaking research for the gull survey because I’m interested in spatial ecology and conservation, in particular the impact of human activities on nature. It’s great to get practical experience of a real conservation issue as part of my University course.”
“It’s also enjoyable talking to people about the gulls and hearing their stories. I’ve also been mistaken for a traffic warden and a policewoman!”
Lindsey Adam, the BID St Andrews Board member responsible for the Gull Project, says: “An informed, targeted, effective response to this issue is what is needed. It’s really good that we can work with the University on this as a ‘St Andrews project’. To tap into that expertise on our doorstep is ideal and another example of BID St Andrews working collaboratively with its stakeholders. We very much appreciate their help.”