DEMOLITION contractors working for Wiltshire Council have slaughtered more than 20 chicks and destroyed eggs and nests belonging to protected gulls in Melksham.

The eggs and nests were removed by M&M Demolition workers demolishing the former Christie Miller leisure centre at Bowerhill for potential redevelopment.

They also allegedly used nets to capture more than 20 chicks and to quickly and humanely destroy all the birds by hand.

The chicks were part of a colony of between 800-1,000 Lesser Black-Backed and Herring Gulls which have been roosting and nesting on the roof of the centre.

The centre, which has lain derelict since it closed in October 2018, is now just a pile of rubble.

The Herring Gulls are on the RSPB’s Red List as being an endangered species of “conservation concern”, while the Lesser Black-Backed Gulls are on the Amber List as being an endangered species in the UK and only breed in about ten sites, one of which has now been destroyed.

The council obtained a licence from Natural England on May 28 to destroy the gulls’ eggs and chicks but only after the building had been partially demolished.

The licence was granted because of concerns that the structure was then unsafe and posed a threat to public health and safety.

But a falconry expert has strongly criticised the council for not waiting until the nesting season was over and the birds were fully fledged. 

Paul Tuckwell, 54, from Bristol, says he believes M&M and the council acted illegally in killing the chicks and destroying eggs during the gulls’ nesting season.

He claims M&M Demolition started work without first obtaining a licence from Natural England enabling them to disturb the colony of protected birds.

After discovering that M&M had disturbed the gulls without a licence, he complained to Natural England and Wiltshire Council.

He said: “I intervened when I found out they never had a licence in place. They did stop work for a while and applied for a licence from Natural England, which advised them to carry out deterrent works.

“They advised the company to carry out four days of falconry, but the gulls had already nested and had eggs present. They were never going to move those gulls.

“Wiltshire Council was advised that if there were chicks there, they were to stop the work.

“On June 7, I counted 20 chicks on the front roof of the building, and that’s not including the back and sides. By June 10 they had killed them all.”

Mr Tuckwell also reported the demolition contractors and the council to the Wiltshire Police Wildlife Crime prevention officer.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 both make it illegal to pursue, hunt, kill or sell gulls as well as being against the law to disturb, destroy or move any active seagull nest.

After Mr Tuckwell complained, M&M and the council applied for and were awarded a licence dating from May 28 but by that time the derelict leisure centre had already been partially demolished.

Natural England said they had “no alternative” but to issue the licence because the building was by then unsafe and posed a threat to public safety.

Mr Tuckwell added: “The sports centre has been empty since 2018 so if it was a unsafe structure why has it taken four years to demolish right in the middle of nesting season.”

A Wiltshire Police spokesman said: “We can confirm that we received a report from a member of the public raising concerns that gulls were nesting on the roof of a building which was due to be demolished.

“Officers from our Rural Crime Team visited the site and advised that a licence was required from Natural England, so work stopped until a licence was obtained.

“We have not seen any evidence that any nests were destroyed or birds disturbed prior to the licence being issued, which means we have not seen any evidence of any criminal offences having been committed.”

Councillor Ian Blair-Pilling, Wiltshire Council’s Cabinet Member for Leisure and Operational Assets said: “The health and safety of our communities is always our priority.

“The former Christie Miller Leisure Centre and highways depot buildings needed to be demolished as quickly as possible due to serious concerns over the stability of asbestos materials on the site.

“Sections of asbestos roofing were failing and collapsing, the structure and therefore surrounding structures were at risk during high winds and other extreme weather events.

“The demolition was due to start in January but delays in finding a suitable contractor prevented the work from starting at that time.

“Due to the need to get on with the demolition as quickly as possible, the council applied to Natural England for a licence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to undertake bird control in the form of disturbing wild birds and their nests whilst those nests are in use or being built.

“It is regrettable that any wildlife is disturbed or harmed as a result of the demolition of these buildings, however Natural England agreed the safety concerns and costs associated with delaying the demolition outweighed the impact on the wildlife and granted a licence from 28 May to 31 August 2022.

“The licence contains a range of provisions, and we monitored the contractor to ensure that they operated in strict accordance with these.

“One of the key requirements was that when nests were removed the birds were prevented from returning and rebuilding, so that they had to relocate.

“This was achieved by removing the nests by hand and the corresponding section of roof was then demolished straight away.

“Under the terms of the licence the contractor is required to provide returns and evidence of their activity to Natural England who were monitoring the process.

“Members of Natural England’s Enforcement Team visited the site to study the evidence and returns and were entirely satisfied that the contractor operated strict adherence to the licence conditions.”

The council now has until September 14 to tell Natural England how many nests, eggs and chicks have been affected.