Setting the net is a well-drilled exercise; we roll out the hessian, onto which the net is neatly folded, then set up the ‘cannons’ whose projectiles, when fired, will carry the net over the feeding birds. Everything is checked and double-checked before we retreat some distance to wait. One of the bulldozer drivers adds some fresh refuse to the catching area and then the gulls appear.
Hundreds of gulls that had been loafing around the site take to the air and I am reminded of sleet against a dark November sky, such is their number. The first birds down to feed are the Black-headed Gulls, but the larger gulls quickly follow them: mostly Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, with the odd Great Black-backed lurking menacingly. The net can only be fired when the safety-zone is clear of gulls so we miss taking several catches because of gulls stood too close to the folded net. The flock feeds quickly and then is gone. More fresh refuse is added and the process repeated until, finally, we can fire. There is a loud bang and the net is up and over the birds in an instant. We rush from our hiding place to secure the net and carefully extract the gulls, which are then placed in hessian sacks to keep them still and calm.
It is only when you get these birds in the hand that you appreciate the delicate nature of the Black-headed Gulls and the brute strength of the Herring Gulls. All of the larger gulls are immatures, either born this year or last, and we work our way through the sacks, ringing and recording before the colour rings are fitted. These also carry a number and are visible enough for birdwatchers to read the number and report it. It should tell us a lot about gull movements, something already evident from this morning’s catch as we have caught a bird ringed in Denmark and one from the Czech Republic. One of the gulls, its foot covered in the expandable foam used by builders, highlights the hidden dangers of feeding at landfill sites and underlines our impact on the natural world.