IF you have been to the seaside so far this summer, you may have seen a poster of swooping birds, with a stark message urging beach-goers 'Don't feed the gulls!'
The signs - part of Keep Scotland Beautiful’s My Beach Your Beach campaign clearly warn daytrippers “bird poo contributes to water pollution”.
But the posters have sparked a backlash from ornithologists who say that seabirds do not pollute seawater, while nature campaigners have hit out at the attempt to blame wildlife when humans are "the ones destroying" the natural world.
The signs have been posted at beaches at Ayr, Troon, Irvine and Saltcoats across Ayrshire, as well as at Kinghorn in Fife; Portobello, Edinburgh, and Fisherrow in East Lothian.
Keep Scotland Beautiful's beach campaign advises on its website: "Attracting gulls to popular beaches by feeding them can result in them disrupting bins, ingesting litter and generally becoming a nuisance for beach goers, as well as harming the gulls themselves."
And it also offers downloadable posters that supporters can print out and put up in their areas.
But RSPB Scotland highlighted to the BBC yesterday that herring gull numbers have fallen by more than 50 per cent in the last 50 years, along with other seabirds, due to changes in natural food supplies.
A spokeswoman said that feeding gulls in urban locations is not advised as it could potentially encourage gulls to swoop or steal food from humans, but added: "Gulls need our help, or at least our tolerance, all the species breeding in the UK are of conservation concern with some in very serious trouble.
"Gulls have traditionally lived along our coastlines, we can help by learning to live alongside them."
She also told the BBC guano contained components such as phosphorus and nitrogen which "allow phytoplankton to grow, which feeds a variety of marine species, from snails to fish that humans eat", stressing that droppings are part of the cycle of nature.
The posters sparked debate online, with the Facebook page for Scots firm Humane Wildlife Solutions, saying: "Apparently gulls shouldn't be popping in their natural environment anymore! It's odd that they would run a campaign blaming gulls and not focusing on dogs or humans in this case and considering how much sewage is pumped into our oceans...I find it odd that the poster does not have a human on it or sewage as they are the biggest polluters!"
Facebook user Hazel Bee said, "This is embarrassing. Dirty campers, sewage leaks making water unsafe for swimming, people letting dogs poop all over the beach but no, let's focus on gulls", while Ali Beswick said: "Whatever next..I really do dislike the the persecution these wonderful birds receive. They're incredible, intelligent and extremely loyal creatures. Sadly, the same cannot be said for humans, what an embarrassment we are."
And Ian Thomson added: "Ridiculous! They’ll be wanting to fit all wildlife with nappies next to protect this unspoilt, clean world humans think they have a right to!"
The ability of seagulls to divide is nothing new, with many admiring their grey and white plumage and yellow beaks - one Facebook page dedicated to them declares it is for "Seagull lovers" only, adding that "seagulls make the most most amazing pics" and the birds are "not as nasty as people make out."
Others, though, consider them noisy, aggressive pests and a scourge of a day at the seaside.
The fact that in the past, many gulls scavenged behind trawlers for fish, means that they have now had to come inland for food due to changes in the industry, with fewer commercial fishing operations leaving the birds forced to look elsewhere for food.
The RSPB say "This brought them inland, and inevitably into conflict with man.
"Gulls are intelligent and resourceful and they soon learned to take advantage of the waste we produce at landfill sites. Previously they nested on sea cliffs in order to be close to their food supply, but now nest on urban roofs."
Dr Viola Ross-Smith, of the British Trust for Ornithology, who has a PhD in gulls, also said she "would challenge" the message on the posters, telling the BBC, "Herring gulls are about a kilo and their poos aren't that big and are pretty innocuous, it doesn't compare to the amount of sewage and wet wipes that we put into the sea."
A spokesperson for RSPB Scotland 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 demonise them on the basis of something that they do not do or cause is careless.”
Animal welfare charity, One Kind, said it was entirely against the campaign's message. The organisation tweeted: "Seagull droppings help ocean life, not pollute it - contrary to the claims of the #MyBeachYourBeach campaign. We join RSPB Scotland & BTO in challenging this messaging. It is the actions of humans that are harming the environment, not the gulls."
A Keep Scotland Beautiful spokeswoman said: "Gull and dog poo have been found to contribute to bathing water contamination and can affect bathing water classifications."
The debate comes as NatureScot sets up a new task force to co-ordinate a response to the avian influenza crisis that is devastating vulnerable seabirds, and other wild bird populations in Scotland. The latest confirmed figures of H5NI positive wild bird cases in Scotland released by DEFRA are 508 cases among 28 species over 139 locations. The main groups affected are gannets, skuas, geese and gulls.