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21 November 2018updated 26 Jul 2021 4:28am

The strange beauty of gulls

We vilify gulls for their proximity to human waste – but for self-declared “larophiles”, gulls are the ne plus ultra of the bird world.

By Melissa Harrison

The European herring gull – a handsome, intelligent but declining bird that’s on the UK’s red list of conservation concern – is, like some of its relatives, often dismissed as a “bin chicken”. Many birders barely bother with gulls at all: their complex moults, taxonomy and plumage stages mean they can be difficult to identify, and their liking for cities and rubbish dumps doesn’t add to their glamour. Yet for self-declared “larophiles”, gulls are the ne plus ultra of the bird world, and they’ll go to great lengths to watch, ring or twitch them. So what is it about Laridae – and more importantly, our relationship with them – that has led us to such extremes?

“I was never a great birder,” Tim Dee writes early on in Landfill. But Dee is, by any normal standards, an extraordinary birder, and only prolonged contact with even greater experts could possibly have led him to this belief. He has loved birds since he was three. He was a member of the Young Ornithologists’ Club, worked in bird conservation and has twitched all over the world. In his dazzling 2009 memoir, The Running Sky: A Birdwatching Life, he wrote, “I have lived my life under birds and I cannot remember a single birdless day.”

But what makes Dee stand out from much of the nature-writing crowd is his interest in people and the subtlety, breadth and allusiveness of his references: Landfill touches on Dickens, the Bible, Hitchcock’s The Birds, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Samuel Beckett and much more. In Dee’s hands, a book about gulls becomes an exploration of the anthropocene, a meditation on the taxonomic impulse and a philosophical inquiry into waste.

It is their association with waste – bins on city streets and rubbish tips – that has made gulls “trash birds, the sub-natural inhabitants of dross-scapes”. This is projected disgust, of course: the waste, the litter and the rotting food are all ours. We do this reflexively to creatures similar enough to us to thrive in proximity to mankind: rats, pigeons and foxes are, like humans, adaptable, clever, resourceful and omnivorous, and we vilify them all for it too.

But while gull populations in urban areas are peaking, individuals yet to develop land-based feeding strategies are struggling, and marine populations of some species are in serious decline as fish stocks fall. Meanwhile, fish processing, which led to a boom in coastal gull populations in the 1960s and 1970s, has all but stopped, and landfill sites now take less and less food waste as we get better at recycling – all of which adds up to an accelerating decline in “PAFs”: predictable anthropogenic food subsidies. “There has been a gull moment and it is coming to an end,” writes Dee. “The waste barges with their headaches of hungry gulls no longer float down an open sewer to Essex. We desire a cleaner world. Meanwhile, the gullers are making a list of what they know they are losing.”

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Dee’s account of his time at Pitsea dump in Essex could not be further from the usual rhapsodic nature writing. He is part of a group of committed larophiles – “all serious ornithologists and conservationists” – catching “geebs” (great black-backed) and other gulls and fitting the birds with rings that allow them to be tracked across continents and their ages recorded. Little escapes Dee’s eye, from the oddness of being able to drop litter to the unexpected grace of an experienced handler drawing out a wing. He ends the chapter with a wry observation: “In the autumn of 2017 the North Thames Gull Group couldn’t work at Pitsea. The food waste coming on to the landfill was too meagre to make trapping worthwhile. The Group – still wanting to fly nets over birds – began investigating goose-ringing options elsewhere in Essex.” More pressing than the group’s enthusiasm for gulls is their passion for using cannon-fired nets to catch birds.

As our refuse is sorted, and gulls sort through it for scraps, we sort and re-sort gulls. What we once called herring gulls are now six distinct species; in the UK today we have the herring, yellow-legged and Caspian gull. Recent scientific advances have revealed a great many “new” species of gull, with hybridisation further confusing the picture – but can they be identified by sight, without a DNA test? Only by the very expert, perhaps. For those whose enjoyment of birds has a competitive element you can see the appeal.

Towards the end of Landfill Dee takes us on some diversions: nightjars in Madagascar, the Natural History Museum at Tring, JM Coetzee’s Age of Iron. While never less than absorbing, the focus and force of the early part of the book is diluted as the central entanglement between humans and Laridae recedes a little from sight. For that entanglement is complex; sometimes even poignant. “Even besmirched… the gulls keep us company,” Dee writes. “And they’ll be with us for the duration of this, our late hour.” 

“All Among the Barley” by Melissa Harrison is published by Bloomsbury. She appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 25 November

Tim Dee
Little Toller Books, 256pp, £16

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This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis