A major 10-year study by the Westminster Government’s conservation adviser found that the number of common gulls in the UK has fallen by almost half over the last decade.
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Scarcity of traditional food sources as sea temperatures rise may be forcing them to seek alternatives on land, which may be why residents of some seaside towns have complained that the birds, also called European herring gulls, are becoming more aggressive.
In its report, published today, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) says that over a decade the number of breeding kittiwakes has fallen by 40%, while there has been a 38% decline in fulmars.
The biggest drop affects the common gull, however, with a 43% reduction in breeding pairs between 1999 and 2009.
Rory Crawford, seabird policy officer at RSPB Scotland, said governments must act urgently to protect vulnerable birds.
“Building resilience into our seabird populations is absolutely critical,” he said. “With the impacts of climate change becoming evident, the new Scottish Marine Act needs to play a crucial role in building this resilience.
“Importantly, it promises to create marine protected areas in key locations for marine wildlife.
“Additionally, a national marine plan should ensure that marine industries are carefully planned and developed sustainably, so they don’t prove to be the final nail in the coffin for species already under threat.”
Crawford added: “If this breeding season turns out to be another disastrous one for sensitive species such as kittiwakes, it’s the starkest warning yet that we must implement these new laws as a matter of urgency.”
The JNCC’s Population Trends and Causes of Change 2010 report uses UK-wide figures, with no regional breakdown available, but the RSPB said anecdotal evidence in Scotland seemed to confirm an impact north of the border.
“Early reports of seabird breeding performances on RSPB Scotland’s coastal reserves unfortunately seem to reflect this worrying trend, with things particularly tough in the
Northern Isles,” said Doug Gilbert, the charity’s Scottish reserves ecologist.
At the RSPB’s Orkney reserve, many kittiwake nests have been found abandoned. Arctic terns have also struggled in the Northern Isles, and failed to breed significantly this year.
Gilbert said: “The most likely cause is a lack of food, especially for terns and kittiwakes, which feed on sandeels.
“Worryingly, it looks like this problem is being driven by climate change affecting the marine ecosystem from the bottom up.”
Underlying problems could also include increased human activity at sea, the RSPB said.
Although herring gulls are among the most commonly encountered birds in Scottish towns and cities, particularly in coastal areas, they were added to the RSPB’s “red list” of at-risk species last year.
The latest 43% decline in their numbers means an overall 25-year fall of at least 70%.