Licences have been issued for more than 160,000 eggs to be taken from black-headed gull nests since 2019, government data shows, as conservationists call for the eggs to be “taken off all menus”.
Each spring, thousands of eggs are collected from the amber-listed seabird’s nests and sold under licences issued by the government’s wildlife watchdog, Natural England. They are considered a delicacy in fine-dining restaurants, known for their creamy yellow yolks and beautiful speckled shells, and can sell for more than £8 each.
While delighting gourmet diners, conservationists are concerned that the taste for these eggs is damaging a threatened species, which has a UK breeding population of only 140,000 and is amber-listed by the RSPB.
The number of licences awarded in 2022 was at an all-time low of 2,500, but conservationists say that is still too many and egg collecting should stop completely, particularly given the additional pressure birds are under from avian flu.
Jeff Knott, the RSPB’s director of policy, said: “With many of our seabird species under increasing pressure from climate change, food availability and bird flu, the collecting of black-headed gull eggs for food is unsustainable, unhelpful and should stop.”
Licensing data seen by the Guardian shows that in 2019 more than 60,000 eggs were allowed to be taken, and licences were granted for more than 95,000 in 2020. In 2021, there was a moratorium on taking eggs in Hampshire over concerns about it being unsustainable. As a result, the total number was much lower, with 7,000 licensed to be taken in 2021 and 2,500 in 2022, as the moratorium was maintained.
Martin Slater, the deputy chief executive at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, said: “Many of our once-common wildlife species are in decline, including black-headed gulls, so we’re surprised to see these licences are still being issued in Yorkshire.
“We’d like to see these licences finally ending here too, and eggs from these threatened birds permanently taken out of sale and off all menus,” he added.
In 2009, a paper published in the journal Acta Oecologica showed that although most black-headed gulls lay more to replace the eggs that are taken, this uses up a lot of energy, which means harvested sites had “poorer hatching success and chick survival”.
According to the study, which focused on a colony in Hampshire, the depletion of the female’s reserves also reduced her chances of survival and successfully breeding in the future. Other birds could also be disturbed during collection.
The gulls’ eggs are typically sold to wholesalers, large food markets such as Billingsgate in London and high-end restaurants, where they are promoted as a seasonal delicacy. During the 1930s, nearly 300,000 eggs a year were traded in London’s Leadenhall Market.The licensed collectors are known as “eggers”.
Dr Malcolm Hudson, an associate professor in environmental science at Southampton University, and a co-author of the Acta Oecologica study, researched the colony in Lymington, Hampshire. He said eggers visited sites daily and took eggs from nests with only one egg to ensure it was less than 24 hours old, systematically working their way through the colony.
Hudson said: “I don’t agree with collecting black-headed gull eggs in the UK – they are a bird of conservation concern, protected by our laws, with declining numbers and few thriving breeding sites.
“The collection does nothing to enhance our food security – it’s a very small numbers of eggs consumed by a tiny (affluent and well-nourished) portion of our population.”
Natural England only grants licences to people who have a “traditional claim”, which generally means it runs in families, particularly among the fishing community. The window for collection is 1 April to 15 May, with a collector being paid £2 to £3 an egg.
Stephanie Bird-Halton, the regulatory director at Natural England, said: “Natural England recognises the collection of black-headed gull eggs as a lawful activity, which is licensable under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
“A relatively small number of eggs are harvested annually, which does not negatively impact the population at the national or local scale, given black-headed gulls can produce multiple egg clutches and continue to breed successfully following egg harvesting.”
However, conservationists say the practice is hard to monitor.
Dr Alexander Lees, a conservation biologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “Although a sustainable harvest of seabird eggs is theoretically possible, this provision opens the door for the sale of illegally harvested eggs – such depredations have been reported at many sites, including Poole harbour, and have impacted non-target species such as the rarer Mediterranean gull, necessitating police protection.”
This article by Phoebe Weston was first published by The Guardian on 3 May 2023. Lead Image: Black-headed gull eggs can sell for £8 each as a delicacy but the RSPB says collecting them for food is ‘unsustainable, unhelpful and should stop’. Photograph: Matthew Scott/Alamy.
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