Wednesday, 8 March 2017
We have a final Commencement matter. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, is flying in for this one. I welcome the Minister of State. We are down to the wire in terms of time, so I ask Members to be as brief as possible.
I will keep it as brief as possible. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. He will see from the wording of my Commencement matter that I am asking him to examine options to deal with the large number of seagulls in the town of Balbriggan in north County Dublin and, indeed, in other large coastal urban areas in north County Dublin. I am raising this issue as many residents in Balbriggan have raised this with me in the last number of months. It is a very big problem in the town at present. I have seen at first hand these aggressive birds attacking people. Children and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to attack from seagulls. Balbriggan has a population of approximately 26,000 people and many older people and children, in particular, have been attacked in recent months and years by the increase in seagulls in the town.Traditionally, seagulls lived at sea and nested on cliffs. Their food source was fish but as fish stocks have diminished over the years, they have moved inland to seek more non-traditional food sources. For example, research established that in 1980 there were approximately 40 pairs of breeding seagulls in Dublin city but it is now estimated there are more than 20,000 breeding pairs in the city. A similar study has not been conducted for north County Dublin but one can only assume that this abnormal increase has been replicated there.
There was a dump near Balbriggan called Balleally landfill, which closed in May 2012. Seagulls had moved there from the sea seeking food and when the dump closed, they had to seek another non-traditional food source, which is why Balbriggan and other coastal towns in north County Dublin became the next hunting ground for them. They used to scavenge at the dump but they have moved into the housing estates and businesses around Balbriggan and this is causing major problems. This needs to be tackled urgently. I would like the Minister of State to outline whether he has plans in this regard. If not, will he set up some plans to deal with this because it is a big issue?
Scientists in the UK are studying the best way to deal with this and to discourage seagulls from nesting in urban areas. They are developing lasers to deter them from nesting. The lasers do not harm the seagulls; they frighten them and deter them from nesting. They are forced to return to the coast and their traditional breeding and hunting grounds on the cliffs and so on. Are there plans to use laser technology here? Hessian sacks are given to householders and businesses in towns in Devon and Cornwall to put their rubbish in because seagulls cannot pick through the sacks. The non-traditional food sources are diminishing in these towns and the patterns of breeding and feeding are changing for the seagulls. Perhaps this measure could also be adopted.
Other measures have been taken such as seagull spikes and oiling of eggs. I do not agree with them but if there are such plans, I would like the Minister of State to address them. If something could be done about the invasion of seagulls in Balbriggan, I would appreciate it, as would the people of the town.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I have sympathy for the people affected. We have a different problem in rural Ireland, particularly in the summer months, with hedge cutting on main roads. We get a great deal of criticism for raising the issue. However, this is also an important and serious issue, which is affecting families and children and it is a concern for people.
I am aware from representations made to my Department of reports that problems have been encountered with seagulls on various housing estates in the Balbriggan area. It is claimed that the seagulls, because of their numbers and habits, are giving rise to public health and safety issues in the area. Many seagulls nest on domestic roofs and it has been reported that some parents do not let their children outdoors, especially during the summer, due to the nuisance caused by the number of seagulls and because of reported instances of gulls attacking people. My Department has also received letters from individuals, local schools, a residents' association and owners of business premises in the area detailing various problems with seagulls.
Seagulls are protected under both Irish and EU law. The population of seagulls in Ireland is not stable. The breeding population of herring gulls, for example, has declined significantly over recent decades probably due to improvements in managing landfill sites as well as other factors. Nonetheless, I accept that there are substantial numbers in some coastal towns and cities, including north County Dublin. I understand that the residents in Balbriggan are looking for a solution that would require non-lethal methods such as removing nests and eggs and the installation of netting and other measures. The granting of individual licences to residents to remove nest and eggs may not prove a feasible solution from a practical and efficiency perspective and it would be cumbersome for my Department to administer.
We have powers under European Communities legislation to make a declaration, commonly known as the wild bird declaration, which allows the capturing and killing of some listed bird species such as magpies and crows in certain circumstances, for example, to prevent serious damage to livestock and crops and for public health reasons. In the main, the declaration is used by landowners to protect livestock and crops and to protect ground nesting birds. In recent years, the Department has reviewed the declaration annually before renewal on 1 May each year. A major review is scheduled for 2018 and this will take account of all relevant factors, including perceived threats, distribution and population data available on the bird species.
As part of this year’s annual review of the declaration and taking account of issues identified in Balbriggan, I am willing to consider the addition of the seagull to the declaration. As they stand, the regulations do not allow the removal of nests or eggs, as is hoped for by the residents, and any such activity would require an amendment to these regulations. I am, however, prepared to examine making such an amendment and this is being actively looked at currently in my Department in the context of the 2017 declaration review. While the annual declaration is generally renewed on 1 May every year, my intention is that the 2017 declaration will be completed earlier than this.
The Minister met a number of public representatives from the area in recent weeks and conveyed to them the position which I have outlined here. The House will understand that the role of my Department is one of conservation and protection of our flora and fauna and of habitats for wildlife. Other than considering legislative change in the context of national and European nature laws, my Department, even if it had the resources to do so, would have no powers to actively become involved in any programme to reduce bird numbers on particular housing estates. It is my understanding that programmes aimed at addressing seagull issues in UK coastal towns were led by the local councils, and the residents of Balbriggan have requested the assistance of Fingal County Council in addressing the seagull problem.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. Seagull droppings contain ten times more bacteria than pollution caused by human waste and, therefore, this is an urgent health and safety issue. One gentleman told me about his five year old grandson who was eating in his garden one summer afternoon and was attacked by a seagull and badly injured. I appreciate the Minister of State's comments regarding the declaration and if can be speeded up, all the better. I urge him to include Balbriggan and other coastal towns in north County Dublin.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which is particularly serious during summer months for families with children. They are concerned that these big birds can injure children. The Department will review the declaration but I hope the community will work with the local authority, which has a role to play. The Department must adhere to the legislation but, at the same time, there are other rules and regulations, and licences can be issued. I hope the local authority working with the community can resolve this problem.