In the ancient ballad Scarborough Fair, a man tells his ex-girlfriend, who lives in the North Yorkshire town, to complete some impossible tasks if she wants to win him back.
A contemporary version of the song might include ridding the town of herring gulls, something people have been trying to do for years with little success.
“Every year in spring and early summer, kittiwakes and herring gulls nest on the rooftops and window ledges of many town centre and seafront buildings,” says a Scarborough council press release from August 2020 announcing a scheme to help owners gull-proof their properties. “Guano from the gulls is constant and leaves an unpleasant trail down the side of buildings and on surrounding pavements.”
It’s also smelly and unhygienic. The council will pay 50% – capped at £2,000 – of the cost of netting, spikes and bird repellent ‘fire gel’ for each property.
The same plan is being rolled out in Whitby and Filey and welcomed by some, especially businesses devastated by the government’s lockdown.
The announcement came at an odd time as it follows months of complaints about Natural England denying pest controller licences to shoot gulls because it insists their numbers have dropped to worrying levels. Tell that to shop owners on the seafront and they’ll laugh at you.
“Seagulls are always coming in trying to steal the ice cream cornets and things like that,” says Dawn Jackson, owner of Harbourside Gift Shop. “They pinch people’s ice creams, fish and chips. The council have asked us not to feed them. There is a lot of them.”
Jackson owns the shop with her son Miles who’s come up with a way of cashing in on the gull menace – seagull-flavoured rock. It only recently hit the shop’s shelves but is proving popular. “It’s lovely,” she says.
Further inland on the other side of town is Kay’s Café. Owner Ray Goddard says the umbrella at the table outside may as well have a target on it, as it’s constantly getting splattered with gull guano.
He welcomes the council’s scheme but thinks his building won’t be eligible. He’s also concerned that it might just be a publicity stunt.
“The thing is with councils and politicians is they like to look like they are doing things when they’re not doing anything at all – this netting might just be that,” says Goddard. “They might be saying we’re doing everything we can with the netting and whatnot when they know nobody’s going to take it up and it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Pest controller Gary Baxter suspects it won’t.
“I’ve seen a lot of seagulls hanging in bird netting and some other birds, a few pigeons amongst it,” he says. “Doesn’t look very nice, does it?”
Several buildings with netting attached had dead gulls stuck in them, their rotting carcases perhaps crumbling away onto snack-eating tourists on the pavement below.
Will Scarborough’s famous seafront end up looking like it’s covered in one big net, decorated with dead birds? NBC Environment is the company contracted by the council to install all the netting, spikes and bird repellent gel. The council’s website doesn’t say whether it will be coming back to pick up the pieces.
“I cannot see this working one bit,” says Baxter. “All they’re going to do is push [the gulls] somewhere else.”