Urban gulls face a crackdown in two British cities as councils are to be handed powers to take eggs from nests in a first for England.
Under a pilot run by Natural England experts at Bath and Worcester councils are set to be allowed to make decisions about managing gull numbers without having to ask for permission from the national body.
Details are still being ironed out but local officials hope that the scheme, which will run from April to August, will speed up efforts to stop the birds affecting people's health and quality of life.
Native to Britain's coastline, the birds have become a common sight across towns and cities, where they have been known to "divebomb" people, steal food and cover cars, streets and gardens with poo.
If it is decided that specific gulls pose a risk to public health and safety, councils will be able to remove eggs, replace them with decoys or coat them with oil to stop the embryos from developing, measures designed to make them less defensive of their nests. Culls are not planned.
Councils used to have such powers under a general license, but in 2019 two species, the lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls, were given extra protection after conservation groups said this policy was causing declining numbers.
Individual licenses now have to be obtained for each case, a time-consuming process that councils complain has left them struggling to deal with the problem.
By April 21 last year Natural England said it had received almost 1,000 applications, warning that the intervention requested was beyond what it considered "ecologically acceptable".
The two local authorities have been chosen because of the high volume of applications coming from them last year. If successful, the scheme would be rolled out more widely next year.
In preparation Bath has begun surveying residents to collect examples of when people have "suffered ill-effects from gull activity".
Councillor Joy Squires, chair of the environment committee at Worcester City Council, said: "They do cause a lot of distress, and particularly with increasing numbers of people living in and around the city centre, that was having a quite severe impact on people's mental health, because they weren't sleeping well."
Gordon Dugan, gull control officer for Worcester Council, said he hoped the change would allow him to more quickly help residents suffering sleepless nights or trapped in their homes for fear of the birds.
"It will mean that I can act much faster. I can instruct contractors immediately if we have to carry out an intervention, which would be the removal of the nest and the removal of the eggs," he said.
Mr Dugan can act if a member of the public complains about gull attacks on the street, and can also identify issues himself before investigating to see if the standard for lethal intervention is met.
Other councils say they have been unable to act to limit the gull numbers as they would have liked to over the past year.
Councillor Richard Cook, leader of Gloucester City Council, said that there was no point applying for individual licenses because so many birds lived in the city.
"If you have two to three thousand gulls, we've had to submit two or three thousand applications and it takes 30 days or more for each license to get an approval, by which time all the eggs will have hatched.
"So it's a complete waste of time making those applications even if they were ever going to be accepted," he said.
Both species of gull are thought to have climbed in numbers throughout the 20th century until the 1970s, after which they began declining.
The RSPB says it has "significant concerns" about lethal measures in urban areas and suggests there should be a numerical limit on the number of gulls that can be controlled.
According to Natural England herring gulls have declined by 60 per cent in recent decades, and lesser black-backed gulls by an estimated 48 per cent.
Dr John Coulson, an ecologist who has been studying the birds for four decades, said: "Numbers of breeding birds in England, Wales and Scotland are in the six figures - something like 300,000 pairs - but people go round from conservation organisations saying they're decreasing.
"They have decreased, this is true, but there are still huge numbers around the country."
Dave Slater, Natural England’s Director for Wildlife Licensing & Enforcement Cases, said: “All birds are protected by law, and due to their poor conservation status lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls - which are a common sight in many English towns - can no longer be controlled under the general license.
“There remains provision for Natural England, as the licensing authority, to grant individual licenses for control – however as with all licensing lethal control should be a last resort.”