Elastic bands pose fresh threat to birds on Mullion Island sanctuary

Gulls regurgitated thousands of elastic bands on the remote Mullion Island, a seabird sanctuary off the Cornish coast, and rangers think they must have eaten them thinking they were worms.

Birds have been bringing thousands of elastic bands to an isolated island off the Cornish coast because they think they are worms.

Mullion Island, off the Lizard peninsula, is a seabird sanctuary spanning just under five acres. Home to herring gulls, guillemots, cormorants, shags and one of Cornwall’s largest colonies of great black-backed gulls, it is closed to the public and even researchers need a permit to visit it. So rangers were baffled when they found vast quantities of green, tan and yellow bands, as well as fishing net and twine, among the food regurgitated by the gulls — until they realised the birds must have mistaken them for worms.

Both great black-backed and herring gulls go and feed in fields on the Cornish mainland and that’s when they must have come across the bands, which are often used to tie cut flowers together. 

Mark Grantham was part of the West Cornwall Ringing Group of ornithologists that discovered the bands: ‘We first noticed [them] on a monitoring visit during the breeding season and were puzzled why there were so many and how they’d got there.
 
‘To save disturbing the nesting birds, we made a special trip over in the autumn to clear the litter. Within just an hour we’d collected thousands of bands and handfuls of fishing waste.’
 
Despite being seemingly common, gulls are in decline, explains Rachel Holder, an area ranger for the National Trust, which cares for Mullion Island. The great black-backed gull has fallen by 30% in recent years and the herring gull now appears on the UK Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. Both species also had a poor breeding season this year.

‘Ingested plastic and rubber is another factor in a long list of challenges which our gulls and other seabirds must contend with just to survive,’ Ms Holder explains. ‘They’re already struggling with changes to fish populations and disturbance to nesting sites — and eating elastic bands and fishing waste does nothing to ease their plight.’

The National Trust and West Cornwall Ringing Group will continue clearing refuse from Mullion Island whenever possible but a concerted effort is required to reduce the birds’ exposure to harmful litter. Consequently, both organisations are asking businesses and the public to keep rubber, plastic and latex safely away from wildlife, including visiting birds.

‘Single-use materials are having an alarming impact on our country’s most remote places,’ notes Lizzy Carlyle, Head of Environmental Practices at the National Trust. ‘It’s up to all of us to take responsibility for how we use and dispose of these items – whether we’re producers or consumers.’