Pennine island is the broody best for UK’s protected gulls

An island in the middle of a remote Lancashire reservoir has become such a safe haven for a protected species of gull that it’s now the UK’s largest colony.

More than 11,500 breeding pairs of black-headed gulls reared more than 10,000 young at United Utilities’ Belmont reservoir, in the West Pennine Moors, this year – a record for the site.
The numbers, which have thrilled conservationists, dwarf those found at the UK’s second largest breeding colony on the coast of Dorset.

It’s the result of two decades of careful conservation work by the water company’s estate staff working hand in hand with experts and countryside regulator Natural England.

Lancashire-based ornithological consultant Stephen Martin said the five acre island had gradually become a sanctuary for birds since the millennium, and also hosted important groups of the rarer Mediterranean gull.

“Even going back to before the 1990s, birds were breeding there in small numbers and were being encouraged by the water company, but in the summer, when water levels were lower the island became a promontory and predators kept the numbers down.

“The big difference came when United Utilities deepened the channel in 2010 and created an isolated island so foxes and rats could no longer get to the eggs and young.

“It’s now a really important colony and one in 14 of all Britain’s breeding pairs come here to Belmont. When they’re nesting it’s amazing to see and hear. It’s one of nature’s great wildlife spectacles.”

Keeping the gulls happy and nesting takes effort. Every year, United Utilities works with local experts like Stephen to manage the vegetation on the island so the conditions are perfect for nesting. That means cutting the long grass and rushes back so that they’re just tall enough to hide the ground nests but short enough so the parent birds can spot danger. Estate staff also warden the site to ensure the birds are not disturbed and can breed in peace.

United Utilities catchment partnership officer Pete Wilson said the gulls were one of a number of wildlife success stories for the water company, which owns around 20,000 hectares of land in Lancashire including parts of the West Pennines Moors Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which contains Belmont reservoir.

“A tremendous amount of time and effort, by a range of people, goes into managing and monitoring the site for the benefit of a large number of species, but the black-headed gull colony is undoubtedly the wildlife highlight. Gull colonies can disappear almost as quickly as they appear, but we intend to try and maintain the best possible conditions for them to continue breeding at Belmont reservoir,” he said.

Other species breeding around the reservoir include curlew, redshank, oystercatcher and common sandpiper. But a relatively recent addition is the very similar Mediterranean gull, which first nested on the island in 2005 and now numbers 70 breeding pairs.

“This is a Schedule 1 species which means it is specially protected. They travel much further than their black-headed cousins and our ringed birds have been recorded as far as Madrid and the Azores,” added Stephen.

“The black-headed gull is an amber species and has been in moderate decline for the last 25 years which is why this colony is so important. The young will tend to come back to their birthplace to nest if the site is still suitable, hence the growing numbers show our work is clearly suiting them. There is plenty around for them to eat, such as invertebrates like worms, beetles and flying ants. Once the young have fledged they scatter across the whole country but many will stay in the north west.

“Every year there’s lots of press about seabird colonies failing so we are always quite relieved when our gulls have been successful and departed. Then the whole process starts again next year.”