BAE Systems has secured government backing for plans to kill thousands of seabirds on the Lancashire coast.

But the RSPB has asked the High Court to intervene to stop the cull, as it is concerned it would be setting a dangerous precedent for bird conservation in the UK.

BAE wants to reduce the numbers of lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls in the Ribble Estuary, because of fears of birds being sucked into jet engines taking off from the airfield at its Warton site.

The site is used for test flights, including planes whose parts are constructed at Samlesbury.

The Environment Secretary approved plans to kill 552 pairs of lesser black-backed gulls, and to allow further operations to maintain the population at the reduced level for 10 years, as long as the population of birds does not drop below 3,348 pairs.

Proposals were also approved for further measures to be taken to maintain the herrying gull population at the reduced level that followed an earlier cull.

In a statement, BAE said the gulls ‘present a risk of bird strike to aircraft operating from Warton airfield’ and ‘BAE systems has sought to reduce this risk’.

The RSPB has opposed the cull, saying that populations of lesser black-backed gulls were in ‘substantial decline’ across the UK, and in need of protection.

At the High Court in London David Forsdick, QC for the RSPB, told judge Mr Justice Mitting: “As far as we are aware this has never happened before in the UK and that is why the RSPB is so concerned to have the decision set aside.”

The RSPB said it intends to refer the decision to the European courts if the High Court challenge is not successful.

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has argued that the cull is legal.

A spokesman said the action was necessary because the gulls were impacting on air safety, and in this instance, ‘human life was more important than wildlife’.