A little secret..
It is a dark and drizzly evening. The November gloom envelops the
town of Totnes. The pubs are moderately busy, and a couple of restaurants
are doing a little business. Otherwise the streets are quiet. As the
church bell strikes nine, two figures walk along under the archway and
turn off into a side street. They move quickly and resolutely. Within
five minutes they arrive at their destination. They pause and
swiftly look around them. All's well. They knock at the door and wait.
A bolt is drawn behind the door. It opens just a fraction.
"Is it on?" asks one of the figures. The man behind the
door nods and waits. He needs the password. The other whispers
the vital word. In a trice the door opens and the two disappear
inside. The door closes quietly.
What is going on here? This scene - common the world over - hides
a secret. What the secret is depends on the situation. Totnes has its
little culinary secret.
The charm and beauty of the old Tudor town are obvious to the casual
visitor. The day markets, the little gift shops, the narrow high street
that snakes up the hill towards the old Norman castle. Totnes supports
a thriving tourist trade. However, the astute visitor soon notices the
seagulls. They are everywhere. They nest on the rooftops and swoop down
into the streets on raiding trips like some kind of avian Viking. Their
droppings spray cars with great dollops of guano as the white birds
disgorge the remains of their meals. The evening air echoes with their
screams and cries, whilst the dawn chorus in Totnes is drowned out by
the raucous screeches and yells of these competitive and combative birds.
Few people in Totnes need alarm clocks. They live in the midst of a
great seagull colony.
The thoughtful visitor might wonder about this. Why does Totnes put
up with this? Totnes is quite a few miles from the sea, and although
gulls are commonly found inland the seagull population of Totnes is
unusually large and thriving. Unlike other Devon towns there are
few signs asking people not to feed the gulls.
One explanation may be that the eco-conscious folk
of Totnes wish to encourage and maintain a town based population of one of their sea coast's most
common inhabitants. This is a tempting possibility, yet Totnesians must
be an unusually tolerant lot to put up with the noise and mess that
the birds produce.
Another explanation could be that there is an obscure league
table whereby various inland South Devon towns compete among themselves
as to who can support the largest sea gull population. After all, many
Devon towns take part in some kind of friendly rivalry in sport, the
arts or tourist attractions. Why not one involving sea birds? Possible,
but somehow unlikely - although Totnes would win hands down.
is a research school where animal behaviourists continue the pioneering
work on the Herring Gull that Tinbergen started over fifty years ago?
Indeed, one of the founders of the science of animal behaviourism -
David Lack - undertook his seminal research about the "Life of
the Robin" on an estate just two miles outside of Totnes. The town
provides ideal opportunities for researchers to explore the family life
of the gull. But given Totnes's tendencies to the arts and the alternative
rather than the scientific, this seems doubtful. There is no Totnes
School of Bird Study or Animal Behaviourism.
At this point the thoughtful
visitor might conclude that the real reason is that most Totnesians
simply don't care and cannot be bothered to do anything about it. But
this conclusion is wrong and unfair to the inventive folk of Totnes.
The relationship between gulls and human beings goes back a long
way in history (Fisher and Lockley 1989). This relationship was
one of predation by man upon the bird. Fossil evidence shows that
even as far back as the ice ages, human beings were eating sea birds.
medieval times many coastal communities in Britain depended on sea
birds to provide extra nutrition and variety to an often limited
communities such as the Faroes killed up to 500,000 puffins a year
- mostly for food. The specially prepared gannet
(or guga) is still gratefully eaten as a Christmas treat for
people in the Outer Hebrides. Up until 100 years ago, gannets, puffins
were staple foods for many offshore islands around Britain. But
things got out of hand. Human predation caused
auk, and by the mid 19th century it was clear that many
sea bird populations were on the decline. Public opinion demanded
predation on the birds must stop. The attractions of the sea bird
as a dietary supplement receded. But it didn't disappear.
Totnes has a secret legacy of sea bird dishes. Over the centuries,
this secluded area of South Devon has come up with a number of ways
of cooking the herring gull (Larus argentatus). Despite the unfashionable
idea of eating sea gulls, the thrill of eating one of the many superb
delicacies on offer still tempts the seabird connoisseur. Traditional
dishes such as gull pie, marinated gull and mint, smoked gull souffle
and roast gull have been extended by inventive offerings such as chillied
gull with ginger, gull veronique and gull mousse through to the offbeat
"lashings of larus". However, despite its bulky size, the
gull is largely composed of feathers. One gull doesn't go very far.
It is not a chicken - or a turkey. Serious gull cuisine needs
of birds with which to prepare the dish.
By the 1960's Totnes had quietly managed to encourage the herring
gull to nest in the town in a modest kind of way. The birds added a certain
"naturalness" to the streets. Visitors were delighted with
the raucous cry of the bird that romantically reminded them of the sea, whereas the more alternative inhabitant favoured the
symbol of freedom that the soaring white bird provided. Although the fashionable
political correctness of Totnes aborred the seagull eating tradition,
there were still many that relished the food. TV pictures of oil spillages
at sea alarmed the public when oil ridden guillemots suffered. Demand for the
seabird dishes declined even more - seabirds were not kosher to eat. Something had to be done.
Two views were involved in this:
Firstly, the town of Totnes was attracting
considerable numbers of people who favoured an alternative style of
living - ie. vegetarian eco-warriors. The idea of eating seagulls appalled
these individuals. Remember this was in the aftermath of books like
"Jonathan Livingstone Seagull". As a result the seagull cuisine
was driven underground.
Secondly, despite the unfashionability of
the dish there were still many faithful devotees that needed to be fed.
Totnes knew that it had to extend it's tradition despite the incursion
of the alternatives. To do this it had
to have a reliable source of gulls.
Wiser folk in Totnes took the view that the days of the alternative
contingent were numbered and that the future demanded a development
of their special cuisine. It was essential that the numbers of the herring
gull was increased and that ways in which the breeding of the gull could
be encouraged were found. More food had to be found for the gulls. Furthermore,
the food should be varied so that the quality of the gull's flesh could
be taken into account for all the variety of recipes that were now available.
Experience had shown that the gull's flesh was much tastier if it had
fed on vegetable matter rather than fish or offal with which the bird
is usually associated. But the future looked bleak - until an unexpected
In 1995 the local council announced a new waste disposal scheme that
encouraged recycling. Local inhabitants were encouraged to sort their
household waste according to whether the waste was recyclable or not.
Green bins were offered to households to facilitate this. But Totnes
realised that if plastic bags - rather than bins - were offered to Totnesians,
then this would provide their population of gulls with an extra source
of food. Gulls can easily attack plastic bags containing household
refuse - bins are impenetrable. Surprisingly the council agreed - although
they might not have appreciated the hidden agenda. The council's argument
was that supplying bins to households within the town would increase
the risk of the bins spilling over in heavy wind and so emptying the
contents along the main streets. By supplying plastic bags to the town
instead of bins, then this wouldn't happen. But they would supply
solid bins to areas outside of central Totnes. Despite the divisiveness of
this unfair policy Totnes agreed and waited. Plastic bags began to
litter the streets of Totnes. Over the next few months the herring gulls
realised that the plastic bags often contained food and so they started to
slash open the bags with vigourous beaks in order to find the tasty tit-bits inside.
juvenile population began to rise. At last Totnesians were greeted with
the screeches of an ebullient new
generation of gulls. Totnes had won. By a masterstroke of
counterfeint the future of the town based herring gull population was assured.
Chefs could now concentrate on the development of new dishes,
confident that sufficient produce was available.
the extensive rubbish that is now strewn across Totnes streets after the gulls
have been feeding certainly exceeds that which would have happened if
bins had been tipped over by wind or vandals. A small price to pay!
Since 1995 the herring gull population of Totnes has soared. Every
week, the plastic bags provide the birds with a bonanza of various
The breeding population of the birds has increased and we now find that
the graceful white bird is extending its range to the outlying parts
of Totnes and the territories beyond. The variety of food available
to the gull has greatly increased, and this should result in a further
development of dishes that take account of this. Will we be able to
eat "seagulls fed on non genetically modified grain" soon?
The future of gull cuisine in Totnes is optimistic. We hope to see
further exploration in developing exciting and innovative dishes. More
needs to be done with the eggs, and the possibilities of harnessing the
fertiliser potential of the guano have yet to be realised. Maybe
other towns can profit by the example that Totnes has provided. Gulls
are great - to eat.
And the password? Well you'll just have to visit Totnes to find out.
Fisher J and R.M. Lockley (1989) - Seabirds
Collins New Naturalist Series ISBN 1 870630 88 2
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