Gulls' Egg Harvesters Are Masters of Infiltration

The ultimate luxury, gulls' eggs are available for three or four weeks a year, and only 25 people, or “pickers,” are licensed to harvest them.

May 2 2016, 10:00am

Photo courtesy Natural England.

They strike when the mother's out, descending the cliffs on climbing ropes to snatch the unborn from their beds.

Their treasure? The black-headed gulls' eggs.

The ultimate luxury, these ephemeral eggs are only available for three or four weeks every year around May. They're so exclusive that just 25 people, or "pickers," are licensed to harvest them under strict regulatory control from Natural England, an environment government advisory body.

They are also drop-dead delicious.

At least, that's what I've been told. So exclusive are these eggs that when MUNCHIES tried to get onboard with a picking expedition we were told we'd have to wait until next year. We were also told the pickers weren't available for comment. It was a similar story from the RSPB: no comment.

Spooky. Seriously, someone needs to tell these people that they're just eggs.

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But then, they're not. Black-headed gulls' eggs are an English delicacy; the Floyd Mayweather of œufs. The liquid gold found within their speckled shells makes gulls' eggs the most expensive, pound for pound egg on the planet, costing as much as a tenner each. Throw in the fact that the black-headed gull have been given an amber status by the RSPB (i.e. a species of "conservation concern") and you can see the value for human and bird alike.

It's for these reasons that the whole setup is shrouded in secrecy. Nesting locations are held close to the chest like the perfect poker hand, pickers play like spies and don't reveal their identities even when asked, and licences are passed down from father to son, mother to daughter like a terrible family secret that could see the heraldry go up in flames if it was ever revealed.

And the picking itself sounds like Operation Gull. Eggs are collected from six sites throughout the UK: the North Solent nature reserve, Lymington marshes, Pylewell and Keyhaven marshes in Hampshire, Barden Moor in North Yorkshire, and the Upper Teesdale nature reserve in County Durham.

Pickers are only permitted to take one egg from each nest and—in a reversal of Herod's first born sacrifice—the remaining eggs are all marked with a cross. Reports describe pickers doing all night vigils, watching over the nests, and fighting off predators ("Naughty fox, shoo, shoo. Go away.")

And it's not just four legged bandits they have to keep their eyes peeled for. In 2008, 3000 gulls' eggs were poached from the Copeland Islands off the coast of Northern Ireland. Similar raids in 2003 and 2004 have driven the Irish colony to the brink of extinction.

Pickers are only permitted to take one egg from each nest and—in a reversal of Herod's first born sacrifice—the remaining eggs are all marked with a cross. Other reports describe pickers doing all night vigils, watching over the nests, and fighting off predators.

"Pickers know the product carries a premium price so they don't want poachers going out and stealing the eggs," says James Lyon-Shaw, Food Operations Manager for ETM, the company that runs various restaurants and pubs throughout London including The Gun in Docklands and The Jugged Hare in the City. Both put gulls' eggs on their menus. For the time being, at least.

According to Lyon-Shaw, the number of eggs picked each year is dwindling, as are the hereditary licences handed out "to pick." There's no doubting egg regulators, Natural England run a tight ship. They only license those with a "traditional claim" so it's a case of no newbs allowed. And those licenses refuse pickers to sell eggs after June 30. If they do, they can be fined up to £5000.

But even under such strict regulations, the harvesting of gulls' eggs is pretty extraordinary. The collection of wild avian eggs is illegal in the UK so that fact that these picking families are allowed to take the eggs of these amber status birds in the first place is pretty remarkable.

"As with all things, it's about control and moderation," says Lyon-Shaw. "If people pick and sell too many then we endanger a species and limit the likelihood of this great product continuing for generations."

They're toying with extinction as it is.

In 2009 Ian West, head of investigations at the RSPB, told The Daily Telegraph that the organisation had "concerns as to whether the number of eggs being taken is sustainable" and that it wasn't a practice they would "support the continuance of in an ideal world," before suggesting that the RSPB is pretty hamstrung by the whole thing: "We would prefer people not to collect eggs for human consumption. However we don't oppose people being involved in legal activities."

The population of black-headed gulls has declined by up to 49 percent in the past quarter of a century. Clearly Natural England has some pretty close ties with egg picking families.

So who eats them? Why the English elite, of course.

The 40,000 eggs that travel from nest to belly make the menus at Wiltons, Le Gavroche, The Ivy, and Le Caprice, and hit the shelves in Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. They're also a popular snack at gentlemen's clubs such as White's, Brooks's, Boodle's, and Buck's (at the latter, they send out email alerts as soon as the eggs land.)

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And last week at the annual Macmillan Gulls' Eggs City Luncheon, 2000 gulls' eggs were eaten by 500 City of London members. The fundraising event has taken place for over 25 years.

It all sounds very old boy's club, doesn't it?

"I think the price tag means London restaurants find it easier to sell as our diners are perhaps more used to weighty costs," says Lyon-Shaw, adding that ETM serves gulls' eggs in a nest, chilled but soft boiled with celery salt and a herb aioli. "Another reason is that it is a very traditional product for the older diners who appreciate their rarity and the luxury involved in them."

What about us non-gulls' egg eating plebs, though?

"Most people try one and they're hooked," Lyon-Shaw says.

If only it was that easy.

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.