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Norfolk on a stick: The gulls that laid the golden eggs

PUBLISHED: 14:39 16 April 2019 | UPDATED: 10:44 17 April 2019

The village sign at Scoulton, near Watton, features a figure collecting the black-headed gullsblack-headed gull eggs at Scoulton Mere. Picture: DR ANDREW TULLETT

The village sign at Scoulton, near Watton, features a figure collecting the black-headed gullsblack-headed gull eggs at Scoulton Mere. Picture: DR ANDREW TULLETT

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One Norfolk village was once much more famous for its feathered residents than its human ones. DR ANDREW TULLETT tells the story behind the village at Scoulton, near Hingham.

Scoulton Mere
 from thei air. Picture: MIKE PAGEScoulton Mere from thei air. Picture: MIKE PAGE

The story that eggs of black-headed gulls, collected from the island in Scoulton Mere, were passed off as plovers' eggs in the markets of London to increase their value is unlikely to be true.

Plovers' eggs were a great delicacy in the Victorian period and black-backed gulls are the most common type of gull in Norfolk.

Surely the discerning diners of the capital would have been able to tell the difference?

The gulls themselves may have found the story funny.

A former Latin name, Larus ridibundus, translates as 'Laughing Gull'. It was recently changed to Chroicocephalus ridibundus - Chroicocephalus being derived from words meaning 'to colour' and 'head'.

The author of an article appearing in The Spectator in April 1897 observed that: 'They are good enough of their kind, but the difference can be recognised when the shell is stripped off. The gull's eggs are so unlike those of the peewit, that the persistence of the tradition that duly are sold as plovers' eggs is puzzling.'

They suggest instead that the tale arose due to confusion between common local names for the two birds. This seems plausible.

Plovers' eggs are actually laid by lapwings, which are a particular species within the plover family.

Scoulton Mere in Norfolk, UK used to be the home of a large colony of black-headed gulls. Their eggs were collected and eaten. The mere still exists but the gulls have long gone. Illustration is dated May 15, 1877.  Picture: BIODIVERSITY HERITAGE LIBRARYScoulton Mere in Norfolk, UK used to be the home of a large colony of black-headed gulls. Their eggs were collected and eaten. The mere still exists but the gulls have long gone. Illustration is dated May 15, 1877. Picture: BIODIVERSITY HERITAGE LIBRARY

Lapwings are commonly known as 'peewits' after their characteristic call.

Coincidentally, the black-headed gull has a similar moniker. In his Ornithologia, published in 1829, James Jennings lists several other local names by which the black-headed gull is known: 'brown-headed gull, puit, pewit-gull, black-cap, sea-crow, mire-crow, or crocker'

That this confusion has definitely arisen is evidenced in a trade directory of 1845 which states that: 'Scoulton Mere, a fine sheet of water, two miles in circumference, has in its centre a swampy island, and is frequented from March to July, by many thousand pewets, (lapwings,) which are useful in clearing the land of insects, and also serviceable to the poor, who gather their eggs for sale.'

The parentheses and erroneous clarification are taken directly from the directory.

A black-headed gull in adult summer plumage. The species used to be a common sight at Scoulton Mere in Norfolk. Picture: JEPH PAULA black-headed gull in adult summer plumage. The species used to be a common sight at Scoulton Mere in Norfolk. Picture: JEPH PAUL

This is most certainly a reference to the famous colony of gulls.

The gulls were once known to nest in their thousands at Scoulton Mere and written accounts described as many as 20,000 eggs being collected during one spring.

After the first eggs had been removed the next clutch would not be taken, a strategy intended to protect the population.

Today the collection of gulls' eggs in Britain is tightly controlled by licence – fewer than 30 are regularly issued per year.

A black-headed gull in flight. The species used to be a common sight at Scoulton Mere in Norfolk. Picture: CHARLES J SHARPA black-headed gull in flight. The species used to be a common sight at Scoulton Mere in Norfolk. Picture: CHARLES J SHARP

Indeed, the outlets which offer these eggs for sale must also hold a special licence.

These restrictions are no longer required at Scoulton Mere however.

The large black-headed gull colony dispersed from the area in the 1950s.

With such stringent current controls, it is little wonder that gulls' eggs demand high prices, currently between £5 to £10 per egg.

A story has it that black-headed gulls' eggs, themselves a delicacy, used to be passed off as plovers' eggs in London after being collected at Scoulton Mere in Norfolk. Picture: KLAUS RASSINGER/GERHARD CAMMERERA story has it that black-headed gulls' eggs, themselves a delicacy, used to be passed off as plovers' eggs in London after being collected at Scoulton Mere in Norfolk. Picture: KLAUS RASSINGER/GERHARD CAMMERER

The season for collecting eggs is short, between the start of April to mid-May.

In 2015, 31,518 gulls' eggs were collected with 27,842 of that number being sold at market.

The eggs of Black-headed gulls now appear only on the menus of London's most exclusive restaurants - the collection of plovers' eggs has been illegal since the passing of the Lapwing Act in 1926.

The character on the sign collecting the eggs is reputed to be John Wayland, the Lord of the Manor in the mid-1800s and owner of Scoulton Mere. It is still under private ownership today.

Scoulton Mere in Norfolk, UK used to be the home of a large colony of black-headed gulls. Their eggs were collected and eaten. The mere still exists but the gulls have long gone. Illustration is dated May 15, 1877.  Picture: BIODIVERSITY HERITAGE LIBRARYScoulton Mere in Norfolk, UK used to be the home of a large colony of black-headed gulls. Their eggs were collected and eaten. The mere still exists but the gulls have long gone. Illustration is dated May 15, 1877. Picture: BIODIVERSITY HERITAGE LIBRARY

Scoulton's Church of the Holy Trinity is depicted in the background to the image.

Although uniformly grey on the sign, the nave, chancel and aisles form their own trio – being roofed with thatch, tile and slate coverings respectively.

The sign was erected in 1983.

-Dr Tullett, from Lakenham, researched just about all of Norfolk's 500-plus town and village signs as part of his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project. He now gives presentations on the topic, and anyone looking for a speaker can contact him at signsofanorfolksummer@hotmail.com.

This is part of a series about the stories behind Norfolk's town and village signs called 'Norfolk on a Stick'. Image: ANDREW TULLETTThis is part of a series about the stories behind Norfolk's town and village signs called 'Norfolk on a Stick'. Image: ANDREW TULLETT

Dr Andrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCANDr Andrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCAN

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