In your “A Farmer Writes” column on 15 March 20, Gerald Potterton asked if I could help to explain where the gulls that visit his farm in Co Meath spend the night.
He speculated that perhaps they fly to coastal Balbriggan to sleep, and there is indeed a good chance that many of them do, as well as to other parts of the north Leinster coast; gulls will fly significant distances for the chance of a decent meal.
Some could instead be spending the night at nearby lakes or large ponds, or even moving further inland to rest at other bodies of water.
There are many different species of gull in Ireland, and several are content to spend much of their time well inland, away from the coast. For this reason, I have an aversion to referring to them using the catch-all term “seagull”, as it suggests an exclusively maritime distribution, which is far from the case.
There is nothing at all novel or unusual about gulls frequenting inland locations or feeding areas that are well away from water.
The species most likely to follow the plough in Ireland, and which I suspect Mr Potterton may well have seen on his farm, are black-headed gulls and herring gulls.
Black-headed gulls are the smallest breeding gull in Ireland, with several nesting colonies found well inland at large lakes and on bogs, even in the heart of the midlands..
It is possible that some black-headed gulls may never even see the ocean in their entire lives. All is not well for these birds, however.
Inland populations have been hit hard by the attentions of the invasive alien American mink,against which their nests on island lakes have little protection. This has left the species in a precarious position.
The herring gull is a significantly larger bird that shows a much stronger preference for nesting in coastal areas.
However, many move well inland once the summer breeding season has ended. Many people assume that populations of these large, grey-and-white gulls are thriving in Ireland, even increasing rapidly, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Irish herring gull populations in fact crashed by 90% over the course of just 30 years, and both this species and the black-headed gull are currently considered birds of conservation concern, ultimately at risk of extinction.
The breakdown of aquatic ecosystems, driven by rampant and unsustainable overfishing, severe pollution and climate change, is hitting them very hard.
I certainly share Mr Potterton’s admiration of and concern for the earthworm, which we all know is an utterly vital part of our soil ecosystem and essential for farming.
I would not share his alarm over gulls eating worms during tilling operations, however; gulls have habitually been eating worms since long before we humans came on the scene, and in the grand scheme of things they consume just a tiny proportion of the worms present in a field.
All of us should be much more concerned about the grave threats posed to worms by pollution, pesticides, climate change, water quality and introduced alien invasive species, such as the New Zealand flatworm.
There is a common thread here. Whether we are talking about declining birds or declining worms, it is ultimately we humans that must shoulder the blame.
We all need to strive to work more in harmony with nature and to stop seeing it as a threat or an inconvenience. Wildlife has much more to fear from us than we do from it.