Every breeding season, the small, protected “Gull Islands” in idyllic Poole Harbour, United Kingdom, become a rendezvous point for nesting birds. Thousands of Black-headed Gulls swarm the rocks, along with fewer numbers of rare Mediterranean Gulls.
But last month, the islands, which are off limits to the public, were invaded by what appeared to be a legion of egg thieves. Conservation organizations estimate that several thousand gull eggs were stolen from nests, destined to be sold as delicacies at high-end U.K. restaurants. Cherished for their smooth, creamy texture, gull eggs are typically enjoyed boiled or poached.
The thieving was discovered by Birds of Poole Harbour; members of the charity group were in the midst of an annual avian survey on the islands when they came upon the haunting evidence. “It became obvious very quickly that something was awry,” says Paul Morton, the founder of Birds of Poole Harbour. “The islands were crisscrossed with footprints and I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the nests [on the main island] were empty.” This is concerning, not just for the islands' Black-headed Gulls, but particularly for the 100 or so pairs of Mediterranean Gulls—many of which are now left with failed nests. It's a blow to the "amber status"species, the second-highest conservation priority in the United Kingdom. Currently, these birds only have 600 breeding pairs in the country, and their numbers are still dropping.
Collecting gull eggs for consumption isn’t exactly illegal in the United Kingdom—but there are limitations. Each year, the government grants about 30 licenses to professional egg collectors across the country, who are then allowed to gather only Black-headed Gull eggs for sale and consumption. The license also puts a cap on the number of eggs they can collect, and gives them access to designated areas where gull populations are stable. Protected areas like the Gull Islands are completely closed off.
Hawking the eggs, even when they’re obtained illegally, isn't too difficult either. Restaurants—which also need a license to sell the eggs—are keen to feature them on their menus and will pay a premium to get them. (They’re typically sold to diners for £7 to £10 each—or $10 to $14.) “The reason they fetch such a high price is they’re only available for four weeks a year,” Morton says. Consequently, collectors can make thousands of pounds off their prized bounty, an arrangement that could be driving a black market and putting preserved areas like the Gull Islands at risk.
Most times, Mediterranean Gulls aren’t even the target: To untrained eyes, their eggs are easily confused with those of their Black-headed brethren. The thieves generally operate under the cover of night, making it even harder for them to tell the two species apart. While (illegally) targeting one bird, they’re instead gathering Mediterranean Gull eggs and selling them to unwitting restaurants, Morton explains. “The issue is the Mediterranean Gull eggs are being stolen as a consequence of this industry.”
This could prove detrimental to the gull’s small population at Poole Harbour. The species has historically occupied the European mainland, but in recent decades, has begun relocating to eastern and southern England, where its low numbers warrant concerns nation-wide. “All birds are protected in the United Kingdom, but you have [listed] birds, which get extra protection,” says Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Any restaurants cooking up Mediterranean Gull eggs are essentially breaking the law.
The birds suffer the consequences of poor public opinion as well. Gulls as a family have an image problem, especially in the United Kingdom, where common species such as Herring Gulls are viewed as tyrants in coastal cities and towns. “The anti-gull media paint all gulls with the same brush,” Morton says. But he notes that these types of species exhibit wilder behaviors than island gulls, which do their utmost to stay away from people, especially during breeding season. Changing the fate of the Mediterranean Gull may partly depend on making people understand why the bird needs special protections.
It’s hard to tell whether the rummaging incident at Poole Harbour was a one-off, Shorrock says. While U.K. egg thieves are unlikely to disrupt the species’ European population, the effects of sustained pillaging in microhabitats could cause lasting damage.
In the short term, restaurants need to play a more active role in halting the illegal trade, Shorrock says, by requiring proof that eggs were lifted legally. “If you have restaurants prepared to take eggs no questions asked, you create a market for people taking eggs without a license,” he adds. “It’s wildlife crime; it needs to be regulated at source, and we need people in the food industry to act responsibly.” Morton has heard that London’s metropolitan police are visiting several restaurants in the city to raise awareness about the problem and encourage diners to use some scrutiny.
Next breeding season, Birds of Poole Harbour will up the ante by installing surveillance cameras near nesting sites. Their aim is to deter trespassers and ultimately protect the islands’ peace and namesake.