Ella stood in the foyer of the swimming pool checking the sky for rain. It looked ominous but with the promise of blue patches in the leaden cloud cover, so she headed for the door. Reaching for the handle something caught her attention outside. An older woman, dressed in full cycling gear – Lycra leggings, fleece and helmet, was wheeling her bike towards the racks provided. Fixing her bike in place, she took a large plastic food container from her saddlebag and emptied the contents onto the pavement. The week’s leftovers from her kitchen plus a large portion of an uneaten take-away. This bounty drew the attention of several of the ‘locals’ – in the shape of three or four large, voracious seagulls who quickly gathered around her.
Ella was taken aback; these aggressive birds were a menace to everybody. Well known for stealing chips and snacks from ‘gullible’ tourists, ripping open bin bags in the streets; even molesting and terrorising diners at tables outside cafes. Somewhat appalled by this flagrant encouragement of these unlovely birds, Ella felt compelled to challenge the woman and screwing up her courage and her civic duty, she stepped up to question her motives.
“Do you really think you should be doing that?” she asked tentatively.
Startled by Ella’s challenge, the woman spun round glaring and fixing her with wild, staring eyes.
“What’s it to you?” she demanded, hands on hips. “Don’t you know these are a protected species?”
“That’s as may be,” responded Ella, “but that doesn’t mean they should be encouraged by feeding them in the streets. It’s unhygienic, they’re a public nuisance and you’re just making things worse.”
“Well that’s for me to decide – I have a job to do.” she snapped, and turned to retrieve her bike.
“So you’re just going to leave all that mess outside the door of the swimming pool I suppose?”
“It’ll go soon enough…” she muttered as she mounted her bike and rode away.
“Hey, wait, that’s disgusting…” but Ella was left standing alone and helpless, surrounded by squabbling birds and an unpleasant pile of old food which was indeed, disappearing fast. She stomped back into the foyer and related the incident to the pool manager. He listened patiently to a description of the offending cyclist, drew a deep breath, raised his eyebrows and sighed.
“Yes, I’m afraid we are aware of her; she’s known around the town but I didn’t realise she’d got round to us yet. Some say she’s a local ‘character’ and others seem to regard her as some kind of hero – why I’ll never know.”
“Can’t something be done to stop her then, do the council or the police know about it?”
“As far as I know, nobody has ever challenged her before…”
“You mean people just let her carry on littering the streets and encouraging these ghastly birds? It’s preposterous, it’s mad…!”
Ella left determined to do something herself. Stepping past the mess she suddenly felt the unsettling sensation of a deposit landing on her shoulder. The gulls had just taken off, leaving a battered, but empty plastic tray and a farewell gift.
Storming home, she dumped her shopping and her soiled jacket in the lobby and grabbed her phone. Some forty minutes and several departments later, she’d tracked down the appropriate section in the council offices and found herself engaged in a long conversation with a lugubrious official enlightening her on the current status of the offending birds.
“I can’t believe this,” she muttered as their role was described to her by the bored official.
“Yes madam, I know but there are particular issues since the introduction of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it’s judged these birds should be included as a protected species and can only be culled under licence where there was a threat to public health & safety or to aircraft. It is a knotty problem and things are a lot more complicated now that we don’t have our Gull Warden.”
“You had an actual Gull Warden?” exclaimed Ella amazed.
“Well after the Act, we had to lose the post and establish a Pest Control Department internally, which is where we are now.”
“So what does this internal department currently control?” she demanded.
“We do get a lot of requests but I’m afraid we’re heavily restricted in what we can do and there are no easy solutions I can tell you.
There’s the setting up plastic owls and birds of prey on rooftops; even using recorded distress calls, but Gulls soon become used to them. Then there’s the possibility of discharge of firearms; hardly suitable in urban areas as it has safety implications. Then again, poisoning of birds which will engage the minds of the health & safety executive. Not only for operatives, but also for passers by when the resultant moribund fall into the street. Also a likely outcry of cruelty by a strong willed and articulate lobby of public opinion. Finally, egg oiling … which prevents them hatching…has been suggested but we could run into legal problems. The council would require permissions from all householders who have nests to access their properties, otherwise we could be accused of trespass.”
“Are you telling me there’s nothing to be done about this woman though?” gasped the exasperated Ella.
“What woman, the Gull Warden?”
“No, the woman at the swimming pool that I’ve been telling you about!”
“Well I can only suggest you could inform the police who could possibly prosecute for littering, that’s an offence occasioning a fine, but you’d need to catch her red-handed I suppose. I fear they may consider the problem rather low on their list of priorities though…what with the cuts and everything.”
“Wait, the Gull Warden was a woman?” queried Ella as a suspicion began to grow in her mind.
“Strangely yes; she was here years ago, before all this wildlife business. She could have stayed as Pest Control Officer but she refused to stick to the new requirements, so we had to revoke her licence. Seems she had some kind of personal vendetta going, something to do with her cat. Apparently the gulls singled her and her cat out and attacked them whenever they left the house. Rumour has it she started wearing a colander on her head and the cat had a little poly-tunnel to get to the garden. Bonkers if you ask me.”
” I don’t suppose you know where she lives do you ?”chanced Ella.
” Protocol doesn’t really allow me to give out that kind of information I’m afraid…Your best bet is reporting it to the police and hope they can find her in the process of offending. Sorry, but if there’s anything else we can help with…”
” I just thought maybe…” Ella mumbled, as an idea occurred to her. “Never mind, goodbye then.”
The library held an online archive of the local papers and Ella had a vague recollection of an article she’d once read about seagulls attacking residents. More determined than ever, she set off to get some information about the mysterious offender. A long session at a communal computer trawling through old newspaper articles turned up two or three likely incidents. One involved a seagull attack on an ice-cream eater, but the victim turned out to be a man. There were several involving office workers having their sandwiches snatched by organised gangs of gulls. These though had targeted young women who, it seems were more likely to drop their food at the first sign of attack leaving the rest of the ‘gang’ to clean up! The last article however was the most interesting. This older article involved a woman who’d been attacked by a couple of gulls in her own back garden. The victim, upon recovery from her cuts and bruises had taken to wearing – ‘a colander’ on her head when she hung out her washing!
‘Bingo!’ shouted Ella, occasioning some disapproving looks and tuts from fellow library users.
The article had named the victim as a Mrs Pippin of 27 Hall Close, an area to the west of the town. It also mentioned that the woman had reported the attack to the police and they had refused to respond to her request to remove the birds, stating ‘Seagulls are not a police matter.’
‘This just has to be followed up,’ thought Ella, wondering how best to go about it. ‘A little reconnaissance is required first I think.’ So saying she set off home, made some sandwiches, packed her binoculars and a notebook in her rucksack and caught the bus to west town terminal. Hall Close was a short walk from the bus station and there were just a small number of terraced houses on either side of the close. Number 27 overlooked a little park at the back with a convenient path along it’s outer limits.
‘Perfect,’ thought Ella ‘ I can wander along there a few times and see what I can see!’
What she could see of course was Mrs Pippin’s back garden, and through the binoculars, she could even make out a little poly-tunnel running the length of the lawn from the back door. ‘Eureka!’ she said to herself, ‘this just has to be it; I must make sure though, but how do I get a good look at the lady in question?’
She sat down on a bench and as she pondered the problem, who should come along the path wheeling her bicycle, but the very person she was looking for. Dressed as before in full cycling gear, but with a helmet rather than a colander on her head. A little unnerved by this lack, Ella decided to watch and wait as the woman drew closer. It was definitely her adversary from the swimming pool, so maybe the colander had been upgraded to a cycle helmet since the earlier incident. Maybe it wasn’t even Mrs Pippin? As she mulled over the possibilities, she noticed the woman had stopped and was getting something out of her bag.
‘Ah, action perhaps,’ thought Ella, setting aside the sandwich she’d just started and
became aware of a gathering of seagulls around the woman. Yes, she was at it again. There was a plastic tray of kitchen scraps and as she was about to throw it on the ground, Ella leapt up and grabbed her arm. Quite a scuffle occurred, both women determined to beat the other off, and a small crowd gathered. There was old food, plastic bags and trays all over the path and a rowdy clutch of seagulls joining in the ruckus. At some point, a policeman appeared and separated the two combatants who stood glaring at each other while names and addresses were duly recorded and witness statements taken. A later appearance at the police station revealed that several witnesses had attested to Ella’s attack on the cyclist and that the mess had been incidental to this. Her sandwich wrappers and plastic bottle though, which she’d left on the bench had, it seems constituted ‘litter’ – all the other scraps having been devoured by the birds. The upshot of a the whole shambles being a statutory littering fine of £80 for Ella and as the last straw, the threat of an ASBO for disorderly conduct and feeding pests in a public park.
The cyclist declined to press charges and returned home to happily concoct another portion of poisoned scraps.