It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in the sleepy seaside town of Hunstanton, Norfolk. With the end of the coronavirus lockdown in sight, families are out on the beach, enjoying the loosening of government restrictions.
But Gary Baxter is in no mood to celebrate.
“Can somebody at Natural England please tell me what is going on?” he asks.
Like many other pest controllers and gamekeepers, Baxter is infuriated by Natural England’s refusal to grant him a licence to shoot gulls, meaning he’s losing business and his clients are having to put up with the problems the birds cause.
“The biggest problems with the gull are the mess they leave behind, the damage they do to properties, the attacks on people, the barefaced muggery… They just run amok,” he says
Natural England says gull numbers are low, so pest controllers need a really good reason to shoot them.
In a statement for Fieldsports News, Natural England chief executive Marian Spain says: “Populations of herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls have declined significantly in recent years to the extent that they are now both considered at risk. It’s essential that we do all we can to reverse this worrying trend. This means placing a limit on numbers that can be killed. We have prioritised culls to protect human health and safety over other reasons that lethal controls might be carried out.”
Looking around the town, there don’t seem to be many around and on the face of it, it seems Natural England is right. But after nearly three months of lockdown, during which the promenade was largely deserted and fish and chip shops closed, one of their main sources of food has been cut off.
Baxter needs his licence to shoot gulls at a factory, where they are creating all sorts of hazards, such as building nests on air-conditioning units. The company makes equipment for the NHS, which would seem a worthy enough reason for Natural England to grant the licence.
“The place that I cover… supplies products to the health services. Why didn’t I get my licence?” he asks.
Instead, Baxter’s application was rejected because the body claims he had put the wrong grid coordinates on the form, despite him putting the same coordinates on previous applications that were approved, including a recent one to shoot collared doves. Natural England claims the grid references were for Skegness, not the King’s Lynn area.
Natural England has turned down gull licences on moorland, too.
“For the last two years, we have not been given licences to control the crows, magpies and gulls on SSSI moorland,” says grouse shooter and moorland conservationist George Winn Darley.
In 2019, under pressure from BBC TV presenter Christ Packham’s Wild Justice group, Natural England imposed a ban on shooting pest birds on European Protected Sites, including SSSIs and SPAs, effectively turning England’s most sensitive wildlife areas into magpie and gull snackbars.
“I don’t see why the redlisted birds that nest on the moors, in particular the curlew, the lapwing, the whinchat and the ring ouzel, have to suffer when they are at such critical levels anyway, because of bureaucratic nicety,” says Winn Darley.
“We have a ridiculous amount of gulls flying over here. They are doing a lot of damage but we can’t get a licence to do anything about it,” says Morgan Brown, a gamekeeper on another grousemoor. “We have applied and appied but have had not luck yet. By the time we do get one probably the damage has been done.”
“This is caused entirely by the government’s own nature laws and their ineptness in delivering them,” adds Winn Darley. “Surely it doesn’t take two years for people to work out how to change the wording on the licences to comply with their own laws and regulations that they passed in the first place.”
Baxter doesn’t believe Natural England’s claims about declining numbers. “I think they have all gone inland which is where they’ve always been,” he says.
To prove a point, we drive inland to Hardwick Industrial Estate. Parking by a random business that has a few birds visible on the roof, he takes out his Harris hawk, and immediately the sky is filled with dozens on panicking gulls.
“Well, as you can see… someone is definitely modest with the truth, aren’t they?” he says.
For good moorland management practice, buy the GWCT’s book Moorland Conservationists for £2.99 and £3.99
For the GWCT, go to GWCT.org.uk