This Sussex Life: Gary Railton, avian pest controller. “George acts as a natural deterrent””
Avian pest controller Gary Railton talks about how his Harris’s hawk George helps to prevent gulls swiping people’s lunches on the University of Sussex campus.
I began coming to campus about ten years ago after a young woman had a scary experience with a gull. She was about to put some food into her mouth when a bird flew in to grab it and it cut her lip. The University contacted Rentokil, who contacted me as an avian pest controller. So I started to come in on a regular basis, mainly to patrol the eating areas around lunchtime to stop the gulls stealing people’s food.
George doesn’t fly at the gulls or harm them. The gulls are protected by law so you can’t harm them. But George acts as a natural deterrent. The gulls see him and won’t come down and swoop on anyone if he’s around, or if they think he’s around. That’s how it works. Gulls are very smart. Not only do they recognise George but they have worked out by association that he comes out of my van. As soon as they see my van they are sending out alarm calls to each other.
I was a bird watcher as a kid, and was forever going in libraries to look at books on birds. When I came across a book on falconry, that was it. I got myself a kestrel at 12 and have flown birds of prey ever since. Yes, I’ve seen Kes. It’s brilliant.
I like all birds, but particularly birds of prey. I have two other Harris’s hawks, but my favourite is the peregrine falcon. I spend a lot of my time watching wild peregrines and have nine peregrines of my own that I breed and fly. Some were shot in the wild and are disabled, so they wouldn’t survive in the wild. They live in an aviary.
A friend of mine said to me that the peregrine is “nature’s hallmark of perfection”. There’s something about that shape, seeing it high in the sky that … I don’t know … just means something to me. I get a little rush of adrenaline, even to this day, and I have been watching them for 35 years.
There is a relationship between me and George, but it’s based on food. I act like a fast-food joint for George. He gets all his meals on the fist. It’s an easy life for him because he doesn’t have to hunt. He has a really good nature, he’s a very steady bird, and he’s ideal for pest control. People often want to stroke him. He won’t grab you or bite you.
I started doing this job about 20 years ago. I used to be an aircraft engineer. One day we had a problem with pigeons in a hangar. My colleagues knew that I kept birds of prey and someone suggested I get my one of my birds up to sort them out. Now I work all over: in train depots, warehouses, hospitals – wherever there’s a problem with birds.
I worked at the Houses of Parliament for a few years with George, who was there to deter the pigeons. Pigeon droppings are corrosive and eat into the stonework, so they were quite worried about that. Lots of people stopped to talk to me because I had George on my wrist. David Cameron was quite chatty, because he is a country gent. Also Lord (Norman) Tebbit, who is also a real countryman. We exchanged a few hawk stories and country tales.
Coming to campus is one of my favourite days of the week because everybody wants to talk to me and George. I also give students advice on how to avoid the attention of gulls. I tell them to try to eat their food indoors, or to keep it covered up when they’re outside. Gulls are only trying to grab the food, but their beaks are sharp and sometimes they get a finger. Also, they go to rubbish tips and put their beaks into nasty things. It’s not the sort of beak you want to have digging into your hand.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.