How one woman saved our snacks from seagulls: ‘Eat with your back to the wall’

Ian Sample
Photograph: The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

How often it falls to science in these darkened days to bring a much-needed glint of hope. And so to this summer’s case in point. Never mind the quest for unlimited green energy, or pollution-free air, or an elixir for life. This was a breakthrough so profound that coverage went global: at last, researchers had worked out how to stop seagulls stealing our snacks.

Or at least how to deter them. In field work that was equal parts brave and foolhardy, Madeleine Goumas, a postgraduate researcher at Exeter University, ventured into the Hitchcockian danger zones that are British seaside towns. Armed with only a watch, a notepad, a pen and a bag of chips, she set about gathering data. It was not long before she had her conclusion: hungry gulls back off if you stare them out.

It was not as categorical as that, of course, but let’s not trouble with details. It was a watershed moment: a small but potent sign that humans might win this war yet. Better still, that victory might come from understanding hungry animals and learning to live with them, rather than charging at them amid a salvo of profanities, or declaring, as Alan Amos, the mayor of Worcester city council did in 2017, that it’s time to “kill the bloody things”.

Goumas has given the issue more serious thought. Having your food snatched from your hand while sauntering down the promenade is a problem that needs sorting, but demonising seagulls doesn’t help. Herring gulls are in decline and on the UK’s red list of Birds of Conservation Concern. “We should try and understand it from the animal’s perspective,” Goumas says now. “If you’re putting a lot of food out, of course they are going to come and try and eat it.”

Her work is part of a greater effort to understand what attracts and repels seagulls. The thinking being, to bastardise the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, is that the better one understands the enemy, the better one is able to save one’s snacks. Goumas showed that gulls pay attention to where people are looking, in line with gulls swooping from blind spots. The information has immediate strategic value: “Put up a parasol, eat with you back to the wall, look around you,” she says.

The seagull study was Goumas’s first published paper and the media attention was overwhelming. But amid the circus came a small flurry of emails from readers keen to share their own seagull stories. A woman from St Ives wrote about how she had once been housebound with a bad foot and, in the many idle moments trapped indoors, noticed a seagull nesting outside, which also sported an injured foot. She became enthralled and watched the bird for years. Much later, she spotted the limping bird again, and turned the encounter into a poem.

“A lot of it is about attitude. Things are only a problem if you make them a problem,” says Goumas. “Not everyone is going to avoid having their food taken, but they can take steps to reduce their chances of it happening.”