The cacophonous Mr Chips

A good field guide, but it won’t make you fall in love with the gull next door

Books

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


When Marianne Taylor left the Kent coast and went inland to university, she couldn’t sleep. Not because, as I’m sure happened to most of us, there was a boy in the room above who stayed up until the early hours listening to French jazz while smoking spliffs out the window, but because for the first time in her life there were no herring gulls squawking in the night sky.

As a nation, we tend not to share Taylor’s love for the six species of laridae, from the Greek meaning “ravenous seabird”, that breed in the UK. They are, by her reckoning, Britain’s most hated birds but they are also, in a sense, some of the most successful. While the population in recent years has declined, Taylor writes that “their numbers grew dramatically through the early twentieth century” due “to the expansion of the fishing industry, and the creation of large, open rubbish tips”, both of which provided them with a reliable food source.

The Gull Next Door, by Marianne Taylor Princeton University Press, £20

Taylor observes that where humans are taking whatever they want from the land and the sea, there are gulls on hand to clean up after us. She doesn’t quite make the leap, but there is something of a fear of the uncanny bound up in anecdotes of humans interacting with gulls. They are every bit as hungry, noisy, and opportunistic as we are, and they thrive in so many of the places that we have declared ours. 

There is also a subversiveness in their indulgence in carefree brutality in spaces of designated peace and tranquility. The most notable example is the lesser black-backed gull in Hyde Park that earns a grizzly living by drowning pigeons before tearing them to pieces in front of horrified picnickers.

But one man’s horror show is another man’s meat, and up down the country on any bright Saturday afternoon, wherever you find large flocks of gulls you’ll also find larophiles, or gullards as they’re unkindly known, flocking to see them. Particularly popular in Britain, larophilia consists of loitering around landfill sites or on harbour walls, with a telescope. Taylor has learnt that the fanatics aren’t looking for beauty. Gulls, she admits, “aren’t really that inherently appealing”; what the larophiles desire is a story or a wayward traveller. 

It takes moxie, when purple prose is the order of the day, to write so functionally. In a sense, it’s refreshing

Any gull with a big numbered leg ring has been registered, meaning its voyages over land and sea can be traced, while the likes of a Kumlien’s Gull, which should really be across the Atlantic with the rest of its kind, would afford a gullard serious bragging rights if they saw it eating a kebab in Carlisle. Taylor edges towards something fascinating but she leaves the stone unturned. Why do people, men mostly, spend all night sleeping in their cars in the hope of seeing a “freak” at first light? What is it that they really see in the winged oddities? 

Like The Way of the Hare, Taylor’s 2017 study of what is possibly Britain’s favourite mammal, The Gull Next Door is ecologically rigorous. Those who want to know about moulting processes and how you age a bird in gull years will be satisfied. However, those hungry for poetic renderings of men weeping in caves and journalists in dungarees who kick cocaine and take on an allotment — all so hot in nature writing right now — may feel underfed. 

To give Taylor her due, it takes moxie, when purple prose is the order of the day, to write so functionally. In a sense, it’s refreshing, but there is a point to the wonder and projection the likes of Adam Nicolson found such success with in his 2017 book, The Seabird’s Cry. The point is that it gets people to fight for the natural world. 

Bob Dylan, as the folk singer and campaigner Sam Lee said to me recently, didn’t unite people in the fight for civil rights with numbers and data — he did it with beauty, music and artistry.

Those hungry for poetic renderings of men weeping in caves and journalists in dungarees who kick cocaine and take on an allotment may feel underfed

Seabirds certainly aren’t eating chips in the last-chance saloon yet. They’re doing better than farmland birds, and much better than waders, but success is relative in an age when the turtledove and the curlew may well become extinct in Britain in our lifetime. Most gulls around our coast are amber- listed, meaning that the population is in decline but the situation isn’t woeful. 

But for the kittiwake, at 380,000 pairs the most numerous of our breeding gulls, things have taken a turn for the worse: the little bird, which spends most of its life at sea, is starting to disappear at an astonishing rate. Colonies across the world are failing entirely, the species is designated as vulnerable globally, and is red-listed in the UK. Their decline, driven by crashing plankton populations and the overfishing of sand eels, which form a large part of their diet, is an important reminder that just because something is ubiquitous one moment, it doesn’t mean that humans can’t destroy everything it depends on very quickly.

Ornithological rigour has its place but — and I write this as someone who recently drove for five hours to see the world’s most inland kittiwake population — Taylor fails to rouse passion about the bird’s plight at a time when passion is vital. As a field guide, Taylor’s book works well. It will certainly leave you much better-acquainted with the gull next door, but I’d be surprised if you fell in love — and she needs you more than ever.

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