Thursday, 05 March 2015 (3063226)
Seagull cull battle goes to appeal court
by Ollie Cowan
A LEGAL row over controversial plans to cull a colony of seagulls in the skies above Southport, due to aircraft safety fears, this week moved to London's Court of Appeal.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is pleading with three of the country's leading to judges to scrap plans to cull more than a thousand birds around Southport and West Lancashire.
The birds fly only two miles west of BAE’s Warton Aerodrome, allegedly causing major problems for aircraft taking off and landing at the site.
BAE applied to cull the population of lesser black-backed gulls at the Ribble Estuary, and to take further measures to maintain the reduced population of herring gulls following an earlier cull.
And The Champion reported last year that Mr Justice Mitting at the High Court dismissed the RSPB's challenge to the decision by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to approve the cull.
The judge ruled that the Secretary of State addressed the issues required of him by the European Habitats Directive and come to a conclusion which he was entitled to reach.
However, David Forsdick QC this week argued on behalf of the RSPB that that decision should be overturned, and the approval quashed.
He said that the RSPB did not oppose population control in the interests of safety, but objected to this level of cull, which he said would take the population of lesser black-backed gulls below its agreed “baseline” population of 4,100 breeding pairs.
Opening his case, he said: “As we have made clear throughout, the RSPB acknowledges the legitimacy of BAE's objective to reduce the risk of bird strike.
”The RSPB is not contending that long term population reduction cannot happen. Our concern is with the legality of a long term population reduction to a level well below the baseline without compensation being provided.“
He added that, in the light of the most recent figures on gull population, the RSPB is not saying that a cull to around a population of 4,100 pairs would be unlawful.
”We are not saying no, never,“ he said. ”We are saying not in this framework which the Secretary of State has set.“
Mr Forsdick said that the cull would involve shooting birds and removing nests and eggs to reduce the population to 3,348 pairs - 18 per cent below the baseline, which he said would be a ”significant disturbance“ to the population.
In the decision under challenge, Mr Justice Mitting ruled that it was for the Secretary of State to determine for himself what the conservation objectives for the Ribble Estuary site were, adding: ”The Secretary of State was entitled to determine for himself the size of the cull which would not adversely affect the integrity of the site.“
The RSPB had argued that lesser black-backed gulls are a species ”under significant pressure“ in the UK, but the judge said that the Secretary of State knew that the Ribble Estuary population had ”increased exponentially“ before the 2002 designation, from fewer than 10 breeding pairs in 1973.
He added: ”It was obvious, and the Secretary of State was entitled to conclude that the culling would not affect the ability of the species to maintain itself on a long-term basis on the site or lead to its decline.“
Lawyers for the Secretary of State are defending the decision at the Court of Appeal, where the judges are expected to reserve their decision in order to give a judgment in writing at a later date.
The colonies are on a Site of Special Scientific Interest between Southport and Lytham St Annes that forms part of the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area on the coast of Merseyside and Lancashire.
In the decision under challenge, taken last May, the Secretary of State directed Natural England to give BAE Systems (Operations) Ltd consent to cull the birds and keep the population to no lower than 3,348 pairs.
Whilst herring gulls are relatively common and widespread, the RSPB says that they are in ”severe decline“ in the UK, which holds 17 per cent of the European breeding population.