There are recurring givens among the phantasmagoria of commodities on a landfill. I noticed four at Pitsea, on the Thames shore in Essex. On nearly every outing there, I either stepped on a dildo, tripped on some indeterminate grey cabling, was detained by the pleading button-eyes of a dead soft-toy, or kicked a book by Ranulph Fiennes.
Locally, the dildos are anticipated. Other gullers at Pitsea had spotted the same trend. Some picked them up and waved them at their friends. Tip veterans barely registered them. Their Caucasian pinks were a similar shade to the sickly neon-coral grime that skins the whole dump. It is hard to identify what this is. A generic residue, or distillate, of all that has been tipped? Or some emergent fungal sporing?
Twice at Pitsea I found a book by Sir Ranulph, knight-adventurer, with damp pages and a shrinking cover, the whole thickening to some light brick that might possibly fuel a fire in an emergency. Kicking his face by accident, as I hurried after gulls, I remembered the story of his frostbitten fingers – after a mess-up in Antarctica, where he’d lost a glove in an icy sea channel, his fingertips on one hand turned black; back in Britain and, one day, despairing in the Home Counties, he locked his hand in a vice in his workshop and took off the dead digits with a hacksaw. And then, presumably, threw them away.
I got out of my car into a smell. Death, I would say. I could taste it too. Sweet and soft and sickly. And the corners of my eyes and my mouth gummed with that grime all day from that first moment. Gulls passed over my head, eyeing our shared route, me on a gritty track, them in the silted air, and I hurried to keep up. Over my waterproofs I put on my prescribed gull-dump kit: a hi-viz jacket and steel-capped boots. Then I found a crowd wearing the same, fifteen men and one woman. I introduced myself.
This, the North Thames Gull Group, is a team of trained gull-ringers (with some supervised trainees) who go catching at the landfill. They have worked Pitsea for years. For a dozen or more Saturdays, from the late summer to the early spring, under the leadership of Paul Roper, the group set cannon-nets on the site and catch and mark (with metal and colour rings) as many gulls as they can.
I got a lift to the top of the tip on my first trip with Paul. He was optimistic. ‘There’s a lot of geebs about,’ he said, geebs being gbbgs, great black-backed gulls. We passed a scree of loafing birds, mostly herring gulls. ‘That’d be a nice catch, I’d take that.’
For the North Thames Gull Group, Pitsea is a way to get hold of gulls. In this handling (identifying, ageing, measuring, marking) a kind of reading of the birds begins (or continues, as birds are sometimes re-trapped, and birds that have been ringed elsewhere, held by others, are sometimes caught or ‘controlled’). An understanding of populations and movements is the goal whilst conservation measures are informed by the knowledge that the ringing brings.
I talked to Paul once the nets had been set to his satisfaction, and while we waited for a delivery of food waste and for hungry gulls. The launch cable ran back to the group’s vehicle at the edge of the trapping site, a flattened hilltop of junk close to the working cliff of the tip, where truck after truck dropped new rubbish throughout the day. Paul stood ready, near the firing-box, but broke off during our talk to chase a fox away, to direct a dust-cart, and to instruct the compactor-macerator driver where to crunch and split his delivery.
‘Do you want us to not swear?’ Paul asked as I switched on my tape recorder.
He began ringing in 1980, and not long after started cannon-netting. He is a commanding leader but also very funny, with a fabulously inventive blue mouth that spares no one and nothing: foxes on the prowl, drivers of dust-carts on the dump, the weather, gulls, gullers.
‘Listen, I’ve got the gunpowder, so I think I am in charge.’
‘We’ve set the cannon-net. The site foreman has put aside a bit of tip for us. The closer we can get to the tipping face, the better chance we have of taking a catch.’
A line of four cannons – black metal pipes one metre long and three centimetres wide – were angled out from old car tyres and weighed down with soil-filled sacks.
‘The food we want when it arrives (we hope) will be spread in front of them. A dropper cable joins the cannons, and that’s connected to the main firing cable, which goes back to the car here and the button and my finger, fifty or so metres away.’
With the permission of the tip bosses, Paul keeps an old Land Rover on the tip. These off-road cars are laws unto themselves. They’ve left the highway forever. As scrapped or worn-out vehicles they have won a stay of execution, but they must spend their spared life driving over a landscape made from other condemned objects.
‘The site people look out for food for us; if anything comes in with black sacks or food waste they will bring it up, and drop it right in front of our waiting net. Then the compactor driver will come and give it a really good mashing so the bags open and the gulls can see the food.’
Paul saw his moment. He pressed the launch button and the net cannoned over the gulls. They lifted as one as soon as it rose above them. A few got away but hundreds were caught. We all started running towards them.
‘Get the geebs first!’
Close up, the catch was extraordinary. The surface of the dump appeared to have come to the boil. A teeming grey and white shoal seethed and flailed under the net. It looked like cornered fish or wave caps or a mixture of both. Food was now meaningless; escape the only concern. A sandpapering sound came from below the net and great agitation. Some were pushed by the webbing into the trash, some were squabbling with each other, and some at the edge of the catch were working their way from under the net. We spread out to stop any further escapes and began extracting the birds.
Because we had caught so many – more than 400 – Paul adapted the usual protocols to ensure the birds’ safety. The most desired and largest, the geebs, were bagged first, then lesser black-backs, then anything with a ring already on it. One herring gull had been ringed in Norway; another was Dutch. A few Pitsea birds were re-trapped and had their ring numbers noted quickly at the side of the net. Meanwhile sacks were filled with the new gulls. We had to work fast. The dump below the birds – the latest pungent layers of feculent accumulation – was foul with food juice. Panting birds were checked and warm feet were monitored. A carnival was being tidied up with great care.
Holding a gull is something. At the net, experienced ringers untangled one bird at a time from the squirm, usually positioning it upside down and taking both legs in one hand and using their other to grasp its wings and neck. Novices like me approached the scene, careful not to tread on any bird, carrying an open hessian sack, so the extractor could pass the gull directly into the bag. I tied the string at the neck of the sack with a double knot, and carried it and its bellying cargo to the strip of plastic from where the cannon-net had been launched. Three or four black-headed gulls are allowed to share a sack; larger gulls have sole occupancy. On the plastic, some sacks subsided and remained still until they were picked up again for processing. Others vigorously strove for freedom. From within a dark, confined and alien space, some gulls managed to manoeuvre for several, sometimes a hundred, yards. These efforts, a kind of puppetry, are always blind. Being inside one of those sacks might be like being in an avalanche. From the outside, the movement looks maggoty, a hungry roil, or like a seal pup, a brown furry nuzzling neck. We kept an eye out for any truancy, and a member of the team was allocated to watch the bagged birds. Tying one bag, I watched as a great black-backed gull escaped from another, courtesy of a worn sack or a bad knot. People were always fetching back wandering sacks. Away from the gathered heap on the plastic strip the sack could be any old junk. And the foxes are bold.
Once the whole catch was extracted the team moved to process the birds. You take a sack, untie the knots and open the neck just wide enough for a hand and an arm. Inside you sweep about, as in a bran-tub lucky-dip, but cautiously for always and not far away, in your mind and for real, is a weapon, inches from your fingers, like a shark’s maw or a scorpion’s tail: the unseen but absolute centre of the bird loaded into its bone-hard beak.
As with extracting the birds from beneath the net, taking the gull’s feet first in the sack is best. They are like parchment, or what I remember of my grandmother’s hands, chalky dry and oddly soft but tipped with claws that are not. Next you must reach behind the bird’s head with your other hand to grasp its neck and wings to stop them flailing as you pull out your prize. Black-headed gulls are small in dump-gull terms but still have a powerful draw to their wings and a bloodthirsty penknife out front. As I got bolder, which meant holding on more firmly, I could just about manage them into the grip of one hand.
Birds’ feathers always feel more resistant to the touch than you expect: they are tough like a raincoat over softer woollens, a shifting outer skin. A dust comes from them too; feathers breathe and crackle. It pays to hold on tight. Large gulls were often too brawny for my neck-grasp and, with them, having got some feet to grip, I used the sides of the sack as a corset for the bird’s wings and drew it out slowly, reaching with my other hand, as the bird slipped from the hessian, to secure its head and to keep its beak away from my face. Ringers handle large gulls somewhat like people handling snakes. Sometimes, my own reach was too slow or my grasp too cautious and, as the bird came from the sack, it tried to fly. Once, losing my neck grip, I was left holding a great black-backed gull upside down by its feet while the huge vans of its wings milled and thrashed and it coiled its neck and head and beak upwards to bite me. To stop the chaos, I had to draw the monster close and cuddle it.
This is an extract from Landfill, the groundbreaking story how of we have worked the rest of the living world, learned about it, named and catalogued it, colonised and planted it, and filled it with our rubbish. Original, compelling and unflinching, it is the nature book for our times.
Tim Dee has watched birds for almost all his life and has written about them for twenty years. He is the author of The Running Sky and Four Fields and the editor of Ground Work and, with Simon Armitage, of The Poetry of Birds. He was also a BBC radio producer for three decades. He is married and lives with his wife in Bristol, the Cambridgeshire fens and in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa.