Memo from Devon – 4

Bring on the dancing gulls. All you herring gulls, enjoying your target practice over the car parks or intimidating tourists who want to eat outdoors, doing your band-legged walks around town or up and down the esplanades, take a bow. The authentic sound of the seaside, the one which every waking holidaymaker identifies as the necessary and inevitable background to a proper shore holiday.

Yes, they are that, but when you actually live on the shore as opposed to visit it, you start to feel a little differently about them. They may well see your roof as a kind of upmarket cliff, warmer and easier to get off and on and probably without so much of the wild winds off the sea. They may well see your car as an accommodating little lake in which they can dump whatever rubbish they’ve been gobbling up over recent hours.

Seagulls are scavengers, and they will eat almost anything, but most of the stuff the humans below eat, such as fried battered fish, burgers, chips etc. don’t do them any good and will give rise to the spectacular falls from the sky which have ruined many a good sun hat or recently purchased ice cream. In spite of just about every esplanade or promenade or dock or beach in Devon being now plastered with signs asking people not to feed them, people still do; the accumulating, shrieking cloud of gulls will appear above yet another bright spark throwing things about out of his or her cardboard carton or flattened out newspaper.

They can, and they will, come down and take food from tables. When a group of people are sitting round a table, usually not; they are generally afraid of people collectively. However, anything left on a table, even for a few seconds, is likely to be ‘come for’. I remember sitting inside a pub with tables out on the esplanade while a young waiter hovered about in the doorway, trying to time his run exactly; a group of people seemed to have walked off and left half of their meal sitting unfinished. He literally had to race the gulls, and only just got to the food before they did. Unlike the Gibraltar apes, who at the top of the rock will literally take the food out of people’s hands, the gulls are a little bit more reticent, but not much.

In seaside towns, there is very little compromise; they are either all over you like a rash, usually in the May to August breeding season, or they seem to have disappeared, back to wherever on the shore they can get a little warmth and protection. New Devon buildings, such as the big Tesco which has graced our town recently, usually come with big nets covering the roof; seagulls like to land, and they don’t like getting their feet tangled up in nets.

They’re not, perhaps, the most beautiful birds in the world, but it can be touching to see one of the big grey fluffy chicks paddling their forlorn way around – seagull chicks are left to fend for themselves at an early age. Occasionally, they do topple out of their roof top nests, as one did in a front garden near ours a few months ago, a sad little corpse lying among the flower pots and presenting various disposal problems.

Part of the seaside, yes, and I don’t think many people would want that to be any different, but, like everything else in our environment, the more we know how to live with them, the easier it will be for all, residents and visitors alike.

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