Staring out seagulls is the secret to protecting your chips, scientists say

Worried about how to protect your seaside chips from pesky seagulls?

Scientists believe the answer lies in an old-fashioned stare down.

The would-be feathered thieves are more likely to strike when they can swoop in under the radar, avoiding the gaze of their victims, researchers said.

Staring at the birds makes them less likely to steal your food, according to the new study.

University of Exeter researchers put a bag of chips on the ground and tested how long it took herring gulls to approach when someone was watching them.

They compared this to how long it took when the person looked away.

On average the gulls took 21 seconds longer to approach the food they often cheekily swipe from unsuspecting snackers while they were being stared at.

The researchers attempted to test 74 gulls, but most flew away or would not approach.

Only 27 approached the food, and 19 completed both the "looking at" and "looking away" tests.

The findings focus on these 19 gulls.

A herring gull at the RSPB nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs Credit: Danny Lawson/PA

Lead author Madeleine Goumas, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter’s Penryn Campus, said: "Gulls are often seen as aggressive and willing to take food from humans, so it was interesting to find that most wouldn’t even come near during our tests.

"Of those that did approach, most took longer when they were being watched.

"Some wouldn’t even touch the food at all, although others didn’t seem to notice that a human was staring at them."

She added the team did not look at why individual birds were so different, but it may be because some might have had positive experiences of being fed by humans.

"But it seems that a couple of very bold gulls might ruin the reputation of the rest," she said.

Researchers said herring gulls are in decline Credit: Chris Ison/PA

Senior author Dr Neeltje Boogert added: "Gulls learn really quickly, so if they manage to get food from humans once, they might look for more.

"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.

"It seems that just watching the gulls will reduce the chance of them snatching your food."

The researchers say the UK’s herring gulls are in decline, but numbers in urban areas are rising.