Contrary to the general public's increasingly scornful attitude toward them, gulls deserve to be admired as one of evolution’s great designs. There is an immaculacy of plumage and a graceful, effortless flight that is an inspiration to poets and writers. Canadian poet Edwin John Pratt (1883-1964) in his work Sea Gulls described them as ‘those wild orchids of the sea’. And American scientist Stephen Jay Gould of The Panda's Thumb and many another famous titles, likened a gull's wing 'about as near nature ever gets to perfection'.

Down the ages gulls have accompanied the artisan in his practises, largely on the open sea but, at certain points in the calendar, in rural settings too. Atmospheric and timeless are those canvases and photographs, capturing vortiginous flocks in the wake of some port-bound fishing trawler or following the plough upon a coastal headland.

Their plangent cries (‘And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying’ to quote poet John Masefield) are a fanfare to elemental freedom. And a soundtrack to childhood summers at the beach.

Great British Life: Desist from gullism, says Stewart Beer. Photo: Tony Gibson Photography/Getty ImagesDesist from gullism, says Stewart Beer. Photo: Tony Gibson Photography/Getty Images

So why the sudden reaction against them? Back in the Fifties and Sixties when my family home lay 12 miles from the North Devon coastline, I remember how countryfolk considered ‘sea’ gulls portents of bad weather. Should a flock be seen the remark would instantly follow, 'must be rough out to sea', or, 'there's a storm brewing', so infrequent did the birds venture to the hinterland in those days. But some gull species have changed their habits with the world's, man-made, conditions.

The decline in the sea’s fish stocks brought a contraction in fishing fleets. The gulls, which had thrived on the discarded offal and undersized catches, were suddenly left to scour alternative food sources. The 1993 Clean Air Act certainly aided them. Instead of incineration, henceforth a range of waste products were sent to landfill sites. The exploitive gulls, in the main herring gulls, quickly moved inland for the pickings. ‘Humans and gulls are contemporaries, riding the runaway vehicle that is the modern industrial age,’ writes Frank Graham Jr in Gulls, An Ecological History.

The declared villain of the piece is the herring gull, that most quintessential of gulls. It’s a species with several geographic counterparts, for example, the Vega gull and the American herring gull. Larus argentatus began to colonise rooftops in south eastern Europe toward the end of the 1800s. Its rooftop colonisation here in the UK was first recorded in Devon 1923, and again in 1928. It has always been a versatile feeder. Most of us have seen its puddling behaviour, stamping on a patch of grass which forces invertebrates to the surface to avoid their perceived drowning.

Flying insects, especially swarming ants are a great attraction in late summer, and the harvesting of molluscs by dropping on to rocks from the air is another speciality.

Great British Life: The cry of a gull is a soundtrack to childhood summers at the beach. Photo: Nigel Harris/Getty ImagesThe cry of a gull is a soundtrack to childhood summers at the beach. Photo: Nigel Harris/Getty Images

But in recent times their attention has focussed on the ice cream, and fish and chip-toting tourists. Without compunction, and with breathtaking precision, these are plucked from the hands of the unsuspecting owners. Recently, and awaiting a taxi just after midnight in the centre of Barnstaple, a herring gull was watched standing bold as brass in the doorway of a busy burger bar expecting charity... Another tactic, and observed by me at Ilfracombe Pier, is for one to perch strategically above the premises of a fish and chip vendor. Then, on the departure of a customer, it swoops down and using its feet knocks the parcelled meal from out of unprepared hands – the scattered contents making for an all out avian scrum.

But, although in the urban environment the herring gull appears ubiquitous, surprisingly the population is overall decreasing, so much so that in 2009 it went on the red list of British species in need of help.

The 50 plus gull species - larids - from the family Laridae, come in small, medium and large gradations, with, at one end of the scale the little gull, a passage migrant no more than 28cm in length, to the largest, the great black-backed gull, measuring up to 74cm. Furthermore, they can be categorised into three age groups, two, three, and four years, before acquiring final adult plumage. Then there are the white-headed, the white-winged and the black-headed...

Great British Life: The great black-headed gull which was shot in Exmouth in 1859 is now on display at RAMM. Photo: Matt Austin/RAMMThe great black-headed gull which was shot in Exmouth in 1859 is now on display at RAMM. Photo: Matt Austin/RAMM

Did you know the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, (RAMM) in Exeter exhibits a great black-headed gull (Pallas's gull) Larus ichthyaetus. This specimen was shot in 1859 at Exmouth and is one of only a very few ever recorded in the UK. It breeds in far south-eastern Russia and winters in the Middle East. The Mediterranean gull Larus melanocephalus is a much smaller black-headed gull and was added to the British list in 1968. Our black-headed gull, one of the six other resident species, has a dark chocolate, not black, head.

Many of the species are named after explorers and naturalists from Britain, Germany, France and the New World. Franklin's is named after Sir John Franklin the Arctic explorer; Bonaparte's after Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, zoologist and nephew of the Emperor; Kumlien's after the Swedish-American naturalist Thure Kuelen; Hartlaub's after the German zoologist Gustav Hartlaub; Audouin's after French naturalist Jean Victoire Audouin; Sabine's after scientist Edward Sabine and Ross's after James Clark Ross the explorer.

Getting to know the gull tribe can quickly turn one into an ardent enthuasiast, eager to search out and scrutinise every flock hopefully to yield that rarity which, during the short days of the year here along the Devonshire shoreline, might be an Iceland or Glaucous, Sabine’s or Franklin’s or Bonaporte’s. Or maybe, just maybe, an Ivory...

Desist from gullism, become a gulliphile. You will find reward...