Jet safety set to put gulls in the firing lien

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The lives of hundreds of birds on the Fylde coast lie in the hands of a High Court judge as a lawyer argues to save them from a mass seagull cull.

Last June Environment Secretary Owen Paterson gave BAE Systems permission to shoot 552 pairs of herring gulls, black-backed and lesser black-backed gulls to prevent crashes involving its aircraft at nearby Warton Aerodrome.

However the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has taken the case to judicial review, and opened its case to Justice Mitting in London yesterday.

The RSPB is asking the judge to quash the Government’s approval of plans to cull lesser black-backed gulls at the Ribble Estuary.

The colonies are on a Site of Special Scientific Interest between Southport and Lytham that forms part of the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area on the coast of Merseyside and Lancashire.

Also under attack are the decisions to permit further measures to maintain the reduced population of herring gulls following an earlier cull, as well as continuing measures to keep the lesser black-backed gull numbers down.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, said: “Of course we recognise the air safety risk, but we believe the Secretary of State’s conclusion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of wildlife protection designed to conserve the UK’s best wildlife places.

“We strongly disagree with his interpretation that it is acceptable to lose up to a quarter of a protected site’s breeding bird population without it damaging the conservation value of that site.

“This sets a very worrying precedent for this and similar sites across the UK.”

Should the appeal be rejected the birds would be culled by rifle shot, which BAE has agreed with Natural England to be the most humane method.

A BAE Systems spokesman said: “Flight safety is of paramount importance to us.

“Large numbers of lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls on and in the vicinity of Warton Aerodrome increases the risk of our military and civil aircraft suffering bird strike, with the subsequent increased risk to the safety and well-being of our local residents, aircrew and our employees.

“We have in the past used traditional bird hazard management techniques and continue to deploy these together with a number of innovative measures.

“For a more enduring and effective solution we have been in discussions with Natural England for a number of years, with a request that we be permitted to carry out a controlled cull on these two types of gull.

“This would sustain the gull colonies, albeit at around half the current number of breeding pairs.

“We are also being closely advised by experts on how such action should be carried out.”