Warnings on Scottish beaches not to feed gulls because bird poo contributes to water pollution are “massively out of proportion”, according to ornithology experts.
The posters, which are part of Keep Scotland Beautiful’s My Beach Your Beach campaign, have also been criticized for “demonizing” gulls and contributing to a chronic human misunderstanding of bird behaviour.
Dr Viola Ross-Smith, a gull expert from the British Trust for Ornithology, told the Guardian: “It seems massively out of proportion to give people yet another reason to be worried about gulls, when we know how water companies are putting untreated sewage into our watercourses and seas.”
“Our seas are full of poos from all kinds of seabirds and fish. Gull poo is natural and pretty innocuous compared to wet wipes or dog poo wrapped in plastic.”
She pointed out that herring gulls were currently red-listed in terms of conservation status, with their population declining by more than 50% in recent decades.
The warnings come as seaside holidaymakers begin their annual tussle with over-familiar gulls.
Ross-Smith said that reports of increasing gull attacks should be read with perspective, too. “Gulls are with us all year round and it’s only this time of year that they get a bad press. It’s the end of breeding season, so birds are trying to defend fledgling chicks, but this coincides with the start of the summer holidays and at tourist hotspots some birds are specialized in pilfering food. But only certain birds do it, and many won’t touch human food.”
RSPB Scotland pointed out that gull droppings – known as guano – were important sources of nutrients for marine life such as phytoplankton, which feed a variety of marine species, from snails to fish that humans eat.
A spokesperson for the charity said: “The notion that seabird droppings are a driver of marine pollution and poor quality of seawater around our coasts is just plain wrong. The clue is in the name – seabirds live by and on the sea, and have done for many thousands of years, playing an essential part in the structure and functioning of the marine ecosystem. They are facing multiple anthropogenic challenges right now, like climate change and highly pathogenic avian influenza, so to demonize them on the basis of something that they do not do or cause is careless.”
The My Beach Your Beach campaign, which has been running since 2018 and targets a selection of Scottish beaches that have had problems with water quality, also encourages dog owners to clean up after their pet and reminds people to take their litter home with them.
A Keep Scotland Beautiful spokesperson said: “Gull and dog poo have been found to contribute to bathing water contamination and can affect bathing water classifications.
“Microbial DNA source tracking analysis (MST) allows the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency to identify the origin of pollution if we get an elevated monitoring result at a bathing water. They can currently determine if pollution sources are human, ruminant (including cow and sheep), gull or dog.”