Sunday, July 19, 2015

Herring gulls and housing benefit

The first enormous explosion from someone's fireworks at 11.30 last night lifted herring gulls off the rooftops and they screamed together in the darkness, circling and warning.

The high calls of their chicks, nestled between chimney pots, cut through the days and evenings. On my way down the hill from the allotment I see them on several rooftops, perched between the unused stacks, fluffed up and solitary, guarded by a parent. On the beach older chicks tag along after a parent or in the street, neck out, with the same complaint, "feed me."

Sometimes there's a massive commotion and the gulls circle protectively or aggressively. I've seen crows and gulls in great air displays. Pigeons stay well away from the gaggles around bin bags and with good reason. In Venice, herring gulls were introduced to keep the pigeon population down and from a vaporetto, Jane and I saw a gull with its beak stretched to bursting point as it appeared to be swallowing a pigeon whole.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee says, "the total herring gull population is now at its lowest level since monitoring began in 1969-70." Botulism from rubbish tips is one theory for their decline and fewer discards from fisheries. According to the RSPB there are only 140,000 breeding pairs in the UK - the herring gull is red listed.  JNCC adds, "Between 1969-70 and 1985-88, the UK herring gull population decreased by 48%. This decline continued between 1987 and 1990, with a subsequent recovery by 1994. A further drop in abundance is apparent after 2000…"

Giya was telling me yesterday how she was on the pier with her friend Polly and they'd seen a seagull steal a doughnut from a man who ranted about his loss: "disgusting and outrageous". Then there was the dog and David Cameron on BBC Radio Cornwall, suggesting a 'big conversation' about herring gulls. Mum and I once watched a man on a beach in Devon throw his bag of chips into the air in frustration and friends of Mrisi's lost their very expensive Brighton chips - no-one had warned them. Everyone has a story of a seagull mugging. But haven't we settled in their territory? And as my reading group asked when we were reading Margaret Atwood, can we imagine a sky without birds?

A herring gull can live for half our three score years and ten and is apparently doing well on Brighton and Hove's rooftops, living off our rubbish. The council says people are annoyed by its noise, but they're annoyed by wonderful, chattery, sociable starlings too, who are also threatened because there are less worms and leatherjackets for the young and all the old buildings are being repaired, so where can they nest? And if we're talking about air displays, the starlings are the business...

A neighbour complained to me in early spring about the dawn chorus waking her up. I look forward to March and the beginnings of it. I look forward to the allotment and the blackbird pair who follow me around, who sound warnings of cats, the female who yesterday flew so close I could feel the movement of air from her wings, the male flashing down to Rob's tayberries. They're still feeding young, so they're often on the ground where I've been weeding or watering.

The old gardening books all write about planting enough to share. I was talking about this with Rob yesterday after he called me over for a brew and we watched the blackbird on the berries.

Sometimes it's frustrating, this sharing. I had a reasonable crop of peas, but the squirrels knocked them down eventually. Some of the broad beans have been nibbled and sweetcorn's a waste of time - badgers know exactly when it's ready and they demolish the lot.

But I'm happy to leave the new currant bushes to the birds while they establish themselves. I'll net them next year. Today I'll take the net off the gooseberries because I've had the crop and the stragglers are open to whatever can bear their thorns. I'll do the same when I've finished picking the netted black and red currants.

And I was delighted, when I was searching to identify the bird Mrisi and I saw on a walk last week at Ditchling Beacon - it was a yellowhammer - to find that it's the mascot of the number 79 bus, which takes you all the way up to this Iron Age hill fort. Which is something of an antidote to the despair I felt at Cameron's sudden interest in talking about seagulls rather than housing benefit for all our young people without trust funds and inheritances.