Herring gulls Larus argentatus and lesser black-backed gulls Larus fuscus breeding at Walney Island, Cumbria, the largest breeding colony of the two species in the UK, have recently shown very different population trends. The former has declined sharply, whereas numbers of the latter have been maintained for several years. Here we compare aspects of the feeding and breeding ecology of the two species in order to examine whether or not this suggests explanations for their different population trends. Comparison of the ratio of the two species in flight lines leading to different feeding sites and their diet composition showed that the lesser black-backed gulls fed more at sea and the herring gulls fed more in the intertidal zone. Urban resources were used by both these species. These differences have been consistent over the last three decades. Susceptibility to death from botulism at the breeding colony was the same for the two species. The availability of the intertidal zone for foraging appears to have declined in recent years, and this may have had a more negative impact on the herring gull. However, the breeding success of the two species remains relatively high. This study suggests that differences in foraging behaviour and food availability during the breeding season are unlikely to be responsible for the marked differences in demographic trends in the two species. Changes in local food availability during the winter would be expected to have more effect on the resident herring gull. This work highlights the need for more detailed studies of the ecology of both species during the breeding season and in winter in regions showing differing patterns of population change.