Pioneering study of four herring gulls nesting in St Ives, Cornwall, found they spent most of their time foraging for food outside of town

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A seagull eats takeaway food left at the harbourside in St Ives. A new study revealed only occasional GPS fixes for four gulls on the town’s streets. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

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A seagull eats takeaway food left at the harbourside in St Ives. A new study revealed only occasional GPS fixes for four gulls on the town’s streets. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The summer holidays are nigh and with them, no doubt, will come stories of seagulls on the rampage, stealing ice cream and chips and launching attacks on people and pets.

But a ground-breaking study that tracked the movement of herring gulls nesting in the Cornish resort of St Ives suggested they spent little time scavenging for goodies or scraps on the streets.

It turned out the four birds studied each had their individual ways of operating.

Two of them habitually headed far out to sea, one flying as far as County Wexford in Ireland, while the others stayed close to St Ives but spent much more time foraging for food on farmland than in the resort.

In all, the four birds completed almost 2,300 trips over 100 days during the breeding season of 2014 and travelled a total of nearly 20,000 miles.

Peter Rock, the lead author of the study, said much was known about rural gulls but relatively little about urban-based ones like these four.

He said: “They have been under-studied so our knowledge of urban gulls is nowhere near as good as it should be. In view of the bad press surrounding urban gulls, it’s a situation that must change and this small study points the way.”

Viola Ross-Smith, of the British Trust for Ornithology and a huge fan of gulls, said the findings showed that there could not be just one simple solution to the perceived problem of the birds.

“This study demonstrates that gulls behave as individuals and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to managing their populations,” she said. “It is vital that any decisions about gull conservation and management are based on the best scientific evidence available if they are to succeed.”

The study involved researchers attaching solar-powered GPS tags to the herring gulls, two male, two female, nesting on the rooftops of St Ives and tracing their movements through a summer.

It turned out the gulls, from four different nests, acted in very different ways.

One of the birds, a male known as G4036, roamed widely, ending up as far afield as the Irish mainland and did not mind spending nights bobbing around out at sea. He was found to have visited Lundy island in the Bristol Channel and the Saltee islands off County Wexford.

A female called G4038 ranged primarily over land or within a mile or so of the shore but also occasionally took long trips out to sea.

By contrast, another female called G4037, which bred on the same roof as the prolific seafarer, and a male, G4039, rarely went more than a few hundred metres over water and then usually only to cross Carbis Bay on the way to the Hayle estuary. Their activity was concentrated during the day while the other two were out and about at night.

The data revealed only occasional GPS fixes for the birds in the streets of St Ives close to their nests, at which time they may have been picking up scraps of human food.

But they did spend much more time at a farm inland where there was a large heap of animal feed and in fields where they were probably hunting for invertebrates, small mammals, nestlings and amphibians disturbed by farm machinery during hay cutting and other farming activities.

The study is the first in which rooftop nesting herring gulls in the UK have been tagged and tracked.

Though gulls appear to be thriving in some areas, many species are in decline nationally, including the herring gull, which is on the UK red list for birds.

Gulls have been pointed to as a possible reason for a teenager falling from a harbour wall in St Ives on Tuesday. According to reports she was eating an ice cream and panicked when she attracted the attention of gulls.