A study by researchers from the University of Exeter shows that staring at seagulls discourages them from stealing your chips. By placing a bag of the tasty fried potatoes on the ground and then staring at herring gulls trying to sneak up for a free meal, the team found that birds that were stared down took an average of 21 seconds longer to approach than ones where the humans looked away.

As one who carries both the emotional and physical childhood scars of trying to protect his seaside fish and chips from a hungry gull, the prospect of deterring the food-snatching feather bags without having to run for the cabana seems a positive development. According to the Exeter team, gulls naturally feed on fish and invertebrates, but they are also highly opportunistic feeders and some, but by no means all, can be sneaky or even aggressive when it comes to snacking.

This is a problem because some species, such as herring gulls, are on the decline in places like Britain, and urbanization along with the birds moving into built up areas can result in increased conflicts with humans that could end up reducing gull populations further. To prevent this, the Exeter team is looking at ways to deter nuisance feeding.

For the recent study, the researchers went to towns on the coast of Cornwall and set down bags of hot chips in the vicinity of herring gulls that were on the ground and generally not otherwise occupied. A team member then squatted a set distance from the bag and either stared at or looked away from the gull in question.

What they found was that out of 74 gulls, only 27 came near the bag and only 19 completed both the "looking at" and "looking away" tests. Aside from showing that gulls don't cooperate, a statistical analysis demonstrated that the gulls being stared at were much more hesitant when it came to stealing the chips. However, the study leader Madeleine Goumas, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall points out that individual gulls seem to have different behaviors and some simply ignored the humans.

"We didn't examine why individual gulls were so different." says Goumas "It might be because of differences in personality and some might have had positive experiences of being fed by humans in the past – but it seems that a couple of very bold gulls might ruin the reputation of the rest."

As to what to do during your next visit to the seaside, the team suggests being on your guard and not letting the gulls gain the advantage of surprise.

"Gulls learn really quickly, so if they manage to get food from humans once, they might look for more," says Dr Neeltje Boogert. "Our study took place in coastal towns in Cornwall, and especially now, during the summer holidays and beach barbecues, we are seeing more gulls looking for an easy meal. We therefore advise people to look around themselves and watch out for gulls approaching, as they often appear to take food from behind, catching people by surprise. It seems that just watching the gulls will reduce the chance of them snatching your food."

The research was published in Biology Letters and the video below discusses the gull staring experiment.