A debate raging over the size and number of signs warning people against stealing pebbles from a small Cornish beach near Bude has escalated from a local dispute to national news after it emerged a man was once forced to drive hundreds of miles to return a bag of stones he had taken.

The furore began on the Crackington Haven Appreciation Group Facebook group, where Jennifer Dixon, a local artist and teacher who helps with beach cleans, complained the beach’s new signs were “McDonalds coloured threats”.

“It’s a shame that we must have such a problem with theft that the beach is now littered with large, red and yellow signs threatening prosecution,” she wrote in her original post.

The subject matter quickly gained attention, with the local Conservative councillor for Tintagel, and St Genny’s parish clerk, Barry Jordan, explaining that on a previous occasion, two years ago, a man who had taken a bag of stones was tracked down and asked to return them or face prosecution.

While both Ms Dixon and Mr Jordan agreed the beach needs to be protected from people removing stones, in order to prevent coastal erosion, the debate over excessive signage has seen hundreds of comments from locals, and two of the four signs have subsequently been removed.

BBC Radio Cornwall interviewed the pair on Tuesday, spurring further interest in the debate.

“We have hundreds of people a year coming to Crackington Haven, and if everybody took ten stones, how many years would it take to clear those stones from the beach?” Mr Jordan said.

“If it took ten years, then in 20 years time, then the beach would no longer exist as the waves would have just crashed through. Those pebbles play a massive part in protecting the haven.”

Despite her criticism of the signs, Mr Jordan thanked Ms Dixon for bringing the issue up, not just for Crackington Haven, but for “all of Cornwall”.

Speaking to The Independent, Mr Jordan said: “Those stones are a natural breakwater. Without the whole haven would flood.”

He said the man who had taken the stones had done so without knowing he was committing a crime, and after speaking to local authorities had driven from “somewhere in the Midlands” to return them.

“We contacted the DVLA, they gave us his name and address. We wrote to him very politely, and he came all the way back from the Midlands and brought them back. And that’s what we would do again.”

Removing stones from public beaches is illegal under The Coastal Protection Act 1949.

Mr Jordan denied the man would have faced a £1,000 fine for not returning the pebbles, as reported by other news outlets, and said a fine of this magnitude would likely only be given to repeat offenders.

Asked if the council would pursue pebble thieves who fled abroad, Mr Jordan said it would be too difficult.

It is not the first time people have been ordered to return stones to England’s beaches. When author Ian McEwan was writing his book On Chesil Beach, he reportedly visited the Dorset beauty spot and took three pebbles.

When he later said in an interview he had kept the stones on his desk while writing the novel, Weymouth and Portland borough council “invited” him to return the stones. Invited as in “or face a £2,000 fine”, as he put it.