Mass shooting of protected gulls on Lancashire grouse moor

RSPB press release: (as read on Mark Avery’s blog)

The RSPB has learned that large numbers of protected birds are being killed on a grouse moor in Lancashire.

A RSPB staff member working in the Bowland area discovered two estate workers shooting nesting lesser black-backed gulls – on a grouse moor managed by the Abbeystead Estate – leaving their chicks to be either killed by dogs or left to starve.

Lesser black-backed gulls have been nesting on the moors of Lancashire for more than 80 years. The recovering colony in Bowland is one of the most important in the UK and is protected under British and European law, having once been in excess of 20,000 pairs. Lesser black-backed gulls are declining across the UK and the RSPB is becoming increasingly worried about their future in the UK.

This species can only be legally culled if they pose a threat to human health, risk spreading disease or are having a negative effect on other species of conservation concern. The RSPB understands Natural England – the government agency for responsible for protecting the countryside – granted consent for the cull. But while the nature conservation organisation has repeatedly asked Natural England for scientific evidence which would justify a cull, none has been forthcoming.

Although the RSPB has yet to see the full details of the consent, it has reason to believe that the landowner may have breached both the letter and the spirit of the agreement, and is calling on Natural England to investigate the matter urgently.

Graham Jones, RSPB Conservation Area Manager for North West England, said: ‘We are devastated that this cull of a protected species has been taking place, apparently without any justification. Although it may occasionally be necessary to cull a small number of large gulls for conservation and health reasons, there is absolutely no evidence to support it in this case. 

We want Natural England to tell us why they think the gulls at Bowland met the legal criteria for a cull and also want them look into whether the terms of an already flawed agreement have been broken. Bowland should be a safe place for this declining species and Natural England should be focussing on helping the colony’s recovery.

We believe the only reason these protected birds are being killed is simply to satisfy the requirements resulting from the ongoing unsustainable approach to grouse moor management”.


This isn’t the first time the culling of Lesser black-backed gulls on the Abbeystead Estate has been in the news. Four years ago Leo Hickman of the Guardian wrote an article on how Natural England had been licensing a cull of this species on the Abbeystead Estate for decades, officially “to stop water pollution” although some believed it was partly done to protect grouse shooting interests.

At the time, the Lesser black-backed gull had been identified as a qualifying species (along with hen harrier and merlin) for the Bowland Fells Special Protection Area, but the official documentation hadn’t been updated to include the gull on the citation, which led to confusion about the legality of the cull.

We’ve just looked at the latest version of the Bowland Fells SPA citation (here) and Lesser black-backed gull is now included, supposedly affording it special protection during the breeding season.

So what gives, Natural England? Have you licensed this cull and if so, what is the scientific justification? If you haven’t licensed it, is this latest cull a wildlife crime? Emails to: enquiries@naturalengland.org.uk


39 Responses to “Mass shooting of protected gulls on Lancashire grouse moor”

  1. 1 Stratofaster
    July 7, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Hi RP,

    The annual gull cull on Bowland Fell has been undertaken for at least thirty years to my knowledge. However, I cannot state that it has happened every year.

    I once met a cull observer who was lodging at a B&B in Caton but can’t remember if he was from RSPB or English Nature as they were at the time.



  2. 2 Iain Gibson
    July 7, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    This is typical of the Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage approach towards the culling of birds traditionally viewed by ‘countrymen’ as vermin or pest species, despite the absence of any genuine evidence to justify this view. Whether this should be allowed in the case of natural predation is questionable. Even in the case of non-native predators or ‘problem’ species, the laissez faire attitude towards culling is unacceptable to many people, becoming more extreme lately, and conservation ethicists need to examine their consciences carefully. The current Grey Squirrel mass cull is anathema to many nature lovers, and only receives so much support by mainstream bodies because flawed science is casually accepted as fact (cue Mr Angry Squirrel-hater). In the case of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, my experience of the species nesting in urban locations in central Scotland is that certain pest control companies have been actively touting for business by approaching house and factory owners, offering to control the gull ‘problem,’ leading to the extinction of most of the larger colonies. Appeals to the RSPB have fallen on stony ground, one explanation given being that any moves to protect the gulls would pose too much of a risk to the society’s public appeal. Similarly all native crow species are ruthlessly persecuted, and licences to shoot Ravens are being issued to farmers who allege that the birds are killing healthy lambs. There is no scientific evidence that this in fact happens. Either we accept scientific evidence or we don’t; it is hypocritical to pick and choose based on a species’ level of unpopularity.

    • 3 Messi
      July 8, 2017 at 9:21 am

      Isn’t it the case that the overwhelming body of evidence (not facts, body of evidence) is that grey squirrel have driven the red squirrel decline and that, if we want to safeguard surviving red squirrel populations, or see reds re-establish elsewhere, we’ll need to cull more greys?

      • 4 Les Wallace
        July 8, 2017 at 11:37 am

        I think the return of the pine marten and goshawk would effectively clear out grey squirrels and let red ones return. I’ve had three private communications with people in Scotland who’ve noticed more red squirrels turning up then finding out pine martens have moved back into their area – one hell of a coincidence. Culling with something like the grey squirrel would have to be incessant and very large scale to work, getting natural predators back would be much, much more sensible. Of course that’s not what some people want to admit too – try getting a keeper to agree martens have helped red squirrels!

        Also with the proposed lynx reintroduction they’ve tried to make out it would be a serious predator of capercaillie, yet again forgetting to ask how they co-existed here for thousands of years and still do elsewhere. Of course lynx kill foxes, so having lynx would actually reduce any credible argument for fox ‘control’ (whether or not they ever really were a problem) as part of the old ecological jigsaw was put back. Locally they live trap and kill mink, but it doesn’t seem to have much impact, otters are returning to my area and there has been a study down South (on the Thames I think) where they found otters did depress mink numbers – not surprising really – fingers crossed.

        Our ‘ecology’ has been seriously messed with, but instead of trying to compensate for and repair the damage the ‘management’ from the other side worsens it! We need to counter their general unecological crap a lot more forcefully, frequently and publicly. The story of how the return of the marten is helping red squirrels – so the status of two native rare species is improving simultaneously – is a brilliant example and they HATE it.

      • 5 Iain Gibson
        July 10, 2017 at 1:36 am

        No Messi, that is certainly not the case. I won’t go into detail because I already post frequently on sites specifically pertaining to the Grey v Red Squirrel debate, and perhaps it’s a bit off topic for Raptor Persecution. The original Red Squirrel decline (of the native subspecies) was driven by man and man alone, at a time when they were originally christened as “tree rats” (a term now used for guess who?), and demonised as enemies of man in a number of ways. In fact due to this native Red Squirrels became extinct almost 200 years ago. The current population was the result of introduced Scandinavian stock to Scotland. It is a common countryside myth, unsupported by credible science, that the species was “driven out” by invading Grey Squirrels. There is undoubtedly an element of competition, as we might expect between two related species, but the clear and unequivocal science suggests that the main inhibitory factor for the Red Squirrel is lack of genetic robustness and suitable habitat. The Grey population might be large, but it is relatively unstable and experiences wider variability in reproductive success, which in time may well give the Red Squirrel the competitive advantage. The key to managing the change humanely in this direction is to protect and greatly enhance native woodlands of the type that better suit the Red Squirrel. This need not take much longer than a few decades if planned properly, and would improve overall biodiversity, providing something more positive than the current cull, which has got the pro-shooting and hunting organisations laughing up their sleeves. BASC are even exploiting it to recruit teenagers into a life style of killing wildlife for pleasure, by running ‘training courses’ in squirrel culling. Ironically this has also led to numbers of Red Squirrels being shot, and not only due to misidentification. The Wildlife Trusts (and I believe the RSPB) have never made a bigger blunder, having been taken in by some very weak science. It’s more a form of populism than it is nature conservation.

        • July 10, 2017 at 9:56 pm

          Hi Iain. Can you point me to the ‘clear and unequivocal science’ implicating lack of ‘genetic robustness’ and ‘suitable habitat’ as ‘the main inhibitory factors’ determining red squirrel distribution? I’m sure the science is there and I’ve missed it. I’m intrigued that reds seem fine on Brownsea Island (quite small and genetically isolated?) and that I counted three dreys in sycamores in a local park which was, 30 years ago, the site of a row of cottages.

          • 7 Iain Gibson
            July 11, 2017 at 8:02 pm

            Hi Steve. As I said, I didn’t intend to go into detail as I’ve already been admonished by RPUK for going off topic on their blog. So I’ll make my reply brief. Your question is very cautiously worded, which is good, but also makes it not straightforward to provide a succinct answer. As I stated, the evidence (studies of comparative habitat requirements) SUGGESTS that Red Squirrels are less adaptable than Grey Squirrels (a rather obvious pre-requirement of ‘the problem’), but that given the correct historical habitat (mainly in terms of tree species mix) they will readily outcompete the Greys. Taken collectively, the scientific research has shown cases of exclusivity of one or other (or both) species, and sites where both species survive in different niches (mixed populations). The real problem in my mind which has led to the cull and associated controversy, is that the cull proponents have been rather selective in their choice and interpretation of which science to adopt to justify their ends. I realise this doesn’t fully answer your request, but it might be worth sourcing information on the following link: http://www.i-csrs.com.

  3. 8 Paul V Irving
    July 7, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    A cull certainly took place annually when I worked there (86-91) in those days it was mainly done using an alphachloralose bread bait at the nest. Excuse was water pollution of a couple of small reservoirs the gulls used to bathe on.I think they were taken out of the main water system years ago. However LBBGs are quite good predators of voles and grouse chicks( on two occasions harrier eggs/chicks too) . The grouse chicks makes them persona non grata of course and this is the Westminster estate we are talking about where one is normally expected to accept what happens and be ready to forelock tug like a good pleb, never did , never will.
    FOIs may be needed here to get to the bottom of it but it is clearly disgraceful.
    There is a 70s paper in either BB or Bird study which shows the colony was much bigger then might make an interesting comparison.

  4. July 7, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    Its an SPA for LBG’s and they are culling them??? They must be able to show how this meets with the conservation objectives for the site. So there should be a management plan?

    If there is a suspicion that a licence is being abused then call in the police…

  5. 13 Simon Tucker
    July 7, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    Natural England as an organisation was deliberately corrupted by the appointments at the top. Tory donors put into positions they were 1) unqualified for (a hedge fund manager and a construction / destruction company director) and 2) unsuited for (the same reasons). The Tories have turned NE into a political rubber stamp for environmental destruction instead of being a science based organisation advising on what is best for natural England.

  6. 14 Karma
    July 7, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Why am I not surprised! Persecution in Bowland has been going on for years. Look at the numbers of breeding raptors this year in Bowland. Where has the Pallid Harrier gone? Where are the Eagle Owls? Where are the Hen Harriers, Peregrines. Anything that poses a threat to Grouse disappears and no one will do anything about it because they are all too scared & just follow orders.

  7. 15 Gordon Milward
    July 7, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    I’m about to contact The Samaritans. I am heartily sick of nothing but bad news and sad news and very little to reverse the frown I get whenever I see an email in my In box. I’m contemplating going back to blissful ignorance.

  8. 17 Fiona McIntyre
    July 7, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    I worked for Lancashire County Council as a Countryside Ranger 1990-93 on this estate, managing the access area. There was a very poor attitude on the estate and amongst others in the council regarding all predatory species on the grouse moor. I knew gamekeepers, and whilst I never came across any illegal activity, I found myself being extremely careful about information on raptor sightings and any other species that would be considered ‘vermin’. I am deeply disappointed, but not surprised, to find nothing much has changed. Money talks, lets face it.

  9. 18 Paul.Chandler
    July 7, 2017 at 10:53 pm

    What would you expect from the.mindless morons who take fun from killing helpless birds to show what big people they are

  10. July 7, 2017 at 10:57 pm

    Surely if a publically funded body tasked to look after wildlife issues a constent for normal protections to be suspended then it should be obligatory for it to publish the basis on which this exemption is given. It should not be a matter of asking them for it as it should be in the public domain as a matter of course. Otherwise, there would be no way in which the public, who ultimately pay the bill, can be sure the rules are being adhered to and that no irregular pressure has been applied to bend the rules. A lack of transparency only encourages speculation.

  11. 20 chris lock
    July 8, 2017 at 5:41 am

    Another stitch up, something muist be able to be done to hamper these people who are culling them. More reason to go on the march in London on the 12th August.

    • July 9, 2017 at 11:24 am

      Well said Chris – is anything being organised. And why are hen harrier days in remote locations? How is that going to raise public awareness?

      • July 9, 2017 at 11:28 am


        Don’t have a go at the people who have got off their arses and organised a Hen Harrier Day event. They deserve support and thanks, not criticism.

        • 23 Iain Gibson
          July 10, 2017 at 12:58 am

          Come on RPUK, don’t have a go at an individual who tries to deliver a piece of constructive criticism. There is too much internal misunderstanding already among raptor workers, lack of cooperation with other ornithological bodies, and egos easily bruised. Many outsiders regard the raptor study groups as elitist and unnecessarily secretive. I share concerns about the best way to organise Hen Harrier Days, and I say this as someone who agreed to help organise one in Glasgow a couple of years ago, but received no follow-up or explanation for the ongoing silence. I attended the rallies two years running in central Scotland, and was dismayed on both occasions to find I was the only member of my Raptor Study Group in attendance. I can’t blame everyone for this failure to support, and am conscious of the dedicated and voluntary hard work put in by my colleagues in monitoring our local harriers, but it’s hard not to be disillusioned by what might be misinterpreted as a lack of obvious concern. I have enormous respect for RPUK and everyone who stands up against raptor persecution, but I note that August is fast approaching and I’ve noticed very little in the birding media advertising the Hen Harrier Days (in Scotland anyway).

          • July 10, 2017 at 6:27 am


            Whatever grievance you have with your local RSG you need to deal with it directly with them – this site is not the place.

            Slagging off the efforts of those who have gone to a lot of time and trouble to organise HH Day events in their own local areas won’t be tolerated here. If anyone is unhappy with the locations, then they should organise one in their own area. If you think the ‘birding media’ hasn’t publicised the events well enough, then do something about it, don’t just moan that others aren’t doing enough.

          • August 12, 2017 at 12:24 am

            Thanks Iain,

            Apparently it is sacrilege to offer constructive criticism on ‘hen harrier days’ – I’ve attend them and love them but still feel they are only gathering like-minded people who are already sympathetic to the cause…
            But RPUK are correct about one thing – if I am moaning about it, I need to get off my keyboard warrior arse and do something about it. I’m up for it – if anyone else is please message me :)

  12. 28 Kim
    July 8, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Oh no, so it happens again, another organisation that kisses ass along with the
    R.S.P.B.. These organisations are not protecting the birds but are protecting the estates and people who shoot, hunt and don’t give a damn really. They obviously employ people who enjoy doing this. I asked the R.S.P.B for help many years ago, no chance. I was pleading for help with the protection of birds on a building site and I needed to.provide proof. They were sweeping birds from rafters and nobody would help me save them. No faith in our wildlife organisations whatsoever. The only way this is going to stop is people power.

    • July 8, 2017 at 8:51 am

      Eh? Presumably you noticed that it was the RSPB who put out this press release, thus bringing it to everyone’s attention?

      How is that ‘not protecting the birds but protecting the estates’?

    • 30 Messi
      July 8, 2017 at 9:33 am

      I had a similar experience with the RSPB – I tried to get them to help protect an overgrown garden that was being cleared. They sent me a Planning for Wildlife pack and urged me to contact Natural England, the county council ecologist and, if I was sure nesting birds were being disturbed, the police. They claimed to have limited resources. I think the RSPB should drop everything and prioritise me and what I want.

    • July 8, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      With respect, the RSPB simply hasn’t got the resources to deal with what are, on a national scale, very minor matters. If they felt obliged to spring into action every time an overgrown garden was cleared then they’d be doing nothing else.

  13. July 8, 2017 at 9:12 am

    Why the surprise ?
    Driven grouse shooting requires unsustainable actions & the agencies are complicit.
    However, this does provide yet more evidence that it is time to end the industry.
    That evidence does need wider coverage in the media to hasten the process.

    Keep up the pressure !

  14. 34 Paul V Irving
    July 8, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    Actually whilst this is abhorrent the fact that a grouse moor is killing Big Gulls is hardly a surprise, despite its dubious legality it is in fact what you would expect of them . Before the general licence regulations were changed several estates in England hammered LBBG colonies until they became extinct Bolton Abbey i the Dales being one and they did it with very little killing just constant disturbance over several breeding seasons and the gulls eventually left.I believe on some moors birds may still be discouraged by shooting.
    However the real horror in this is that a species is being allowed by licence ( even if that licence is being breached or itself is legally dubious) to kill a species in an SPA designated for the protection of that species. The Bowland SPA is designated for Hen Harrier ( already driven to local extinction), Merlin and Lesser Black-backed Gull being killed now.
    How do the folk at Natural England justify this licence granted apparently to protect vegetation, that the keepers regularly burn when the only justification for such a licence is human health?

    we need to demand answers not of the estate, the police may do that and possibly NE, but of the licencing authority itself . The licence itself may be in breach of the law, if so it is the issuing authority (NE) not the estate at fault in law.

  15. 35 anne bourne
    July 8, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    Natural England in the pocket of the NFU and the wealthy landowners. Once again they are bowing to the demands of the owners of the grouse moors and agreeing to the cull. No Justification except greed!!

  16. July 9, 2017 at 11:22 am

    ‘Natural’ England – what a contradiction in terms.

  17. 37 Greer Hart, senior
    July 9, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    I could not agree more with GORDON MILWARD and CAIRNTON about how depressing it is to go on the RPS site, with its almost constant bad news. “Blissful ignorance” is what Gordon recommends. As one who has a universal interest, in such matters as conservation of species and animal welfare, along with various matters relating to the bad treatment of vulnerable humans, I have my sanity challenged daily. Great forbearance is required when one is of humane/compassionate disposition. What we experience in the UK is slight when taken in the context of what is happening to bird life and other species, in other parts of this vale of tears. Just last night, I caught a news item on Al Jazeera (much to be commended for its interest in animal welfare and conservation of species), about the shooting of migrating birds in the Lebanon. Such birds are under protection, but the shooters have continued to blast thousands out of the skies as it is a tradition. So, that humane protection means the authorities will have concede to the law-breaking shooters, and allow quotas with licensing, to control the slaughter. All around the Mediterranean such vindictive traditions exist against birdlife. In the USA, wildlife organisations are up in arms over the proposed budget cuts to environmental protection agencies, and certain species being taken off the endangered lists (Wolf, Grizzlies, Cougar etc), plus national parks being opened up to timber extraction, mining and gas and oil exploration. This is to placate the gun lobby and trophy shooters who voted for Trump, and remember he once owned a shooting estate in our Cairngorms, but popular accord bought him out, thanks to Chris Brasher, who was a member of the Rambling Association.

    So, what chance do we have here, with the civil servants, judiciary, Crown Office and Prosecution Service and sections of the Police, all having had allegations made against them for bias, and laws passed to protect wildlife having flaws in them, that make them ineffective, e.g. fox-hunting? Indeed, we are lucky, as in Malta, France, Italy, Spain and the Middle East, courageous opponents of bird slaughter, are presented with extreme violence. The future does indeed look glum for birds of all description, and for the survival of Lions, Elephants, Rhinos, Giraffes and many, many other creatures. Another area of my glumness is human trafficking, which we can barely control, as there are so many vested interests holding progress back, and the ongoing genocide of Amerindians in the Amazon, by ranchers, miners, plantation developers, oil and gas explorers and timber thieves.

    RPS is like a little asylum for those who detest cruelty to Birds of Prey and other creatures that are targeted by an anachronistic, but powerful lobbies, who have tentacles where required, to stifle opposition. That is the problem. Our impotence should become an explosion of determination to make it our political aim to have a land reform in Scotland, and one that is not lead by someone who owns a shooting estate, and is a QC, but by a person with radical ideas and intent to seem them through with the mass of our population giving its backing.

  18. 38 Doug Malpus
    July 10, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Birds polluting water supplies with natural droppings are easily purified but the shooters loading the water with highly toxic lead seems to have no control. I would guess that there are many tonnes of this toxic heavy metal scattered over our country each year. It is banned for water fowl, why is it still used on moors and fields? Does anyone have figures on lead pollution from the shooting industry?

  19. 39 Ian McPherson
    July 10, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Sounds to me as if someone is getting their pockets lined with cash.

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