Project aims to save gulls after 99% drop in breeding pairs at Suffolk site

Gull officers Angus Barnett and Reuben Denton Beasley at Orford Ness

Gull officers Angus Barnett and Reuben Denton Beasley aim to help increase the lesser black-backed gull population at Orford Ness - Credit: National Trust Images / Andrew Capell

Urban seagulls are not everyone's favourite bird - noisy, perceived as aggressive and sometimes known to steal a chip or an ice cream.

But while those gulls are growing in seaside areas, in Suffolk a project is underway to help one type of gull which has seen a huge 99% decline in its population at a coastal site.

Observers at Orford Ness have seen the number of pairs of lesser black-backed gulls drop from 20,000 breeding pairs in the 1990s after the MoD left to just 210 pairs last year.

Lesser Black Backed Gull, Farne Islands, Northumberland

Lesser Black-Backed Gull - Credit: National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

Now a new project has been launched with the help of two new gull officers at the National Trust’s Orford Ness Nature Reserve, funded by the Galloper Offshore Wind Farm.

The decline of the lesser black-backed gull - a large gull, identified by its dark grey to black back and wings, yellow bill and yellow legs - is thought to be largely due to an increase in human disturbance.

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) in flight over the sea, Trevose Head, Cornwall.

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) in flight over the sea - Credit: National Trust Images/Nick Upto

The large, isolated expanse of rare, vegetated shingle at Orford Ness offers the ideal habitat for nesting gulls and many other rare and special birds but in recent years the area has seen a significant increase in human activity and unauthorised access.

It's hoped that by protecting these natural breeding areas at Orford Ness there will be an increase in the number of breeding pairs and successful fledgling of chicks, to establish and healthy colony of gulls along the shingle spit.

Lesser Black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) nest with eggs at Orford Ness

Lesser Black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) nest with eggs at Orford Ness. An old shoe and plastic tie are used by the birds as markers. - Credit: NTPL/Paul Wakefield

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Emma Hay, nature conservation specialist for the National Trust, said:  "It’s not clear why numbers dropped so dramatically and there will have been a number of factors at play leading to this decline including an increase in human activity on the site over the last 20 years.

"Disturbance has almost certainly affected nesting gull numbers, despite careful visitor management. In recent years we’ve seen numbers dwindle even further, which means we need to do more to protect them.”

Reuben Denton-Beasley and Angus Barnett are the two new gull officers who have been brought on board to work on the remote 10-mile stretch of coastline.

For Angus, his love of birds has taken him around the world, but this new role gives him the chance to make a difference closer to home.

Angus Barnett at Orford Ness.

Angus Barnett at Orford Ness. - Credit: National Trust Images / Andrew Capell

He said: I’ve always admired gulls for their adaptability to live in all manner of habitats and climates. From urban to coastal or tropical to arctic conditions they are survivors much like us. I really hope my role can help work out where they are most disturbed, where they are going and how best we can help them recover.”

Reuben said: "I’m excited for the birds to start nesting on the Ness, which marks the real beginning of the project. I’ll be working with the local community to raise awareness and help spread the word about the importance of protecting the breeding sites. Gulls are an integral part of Britain’s coastal wildlife and should be protected as much as any other species, this is something I’m extremely passionate about.”

Glen Pearce, property operations manager at Orford Ness, said while the trust wants visitors to enjoy the Ness, he urged them tro help protect the fragile environment by keeping to waymarked paths and following signage to ensure breeding habitats are protected.

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) adult at its breeding colony

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) adult - Credit: National Trust Images / Nick Upton