As I've had cause to remark upon in this column before (surely a phrase that will spark an electric thrill up the spine of every reader), the black-backed gull is a most curious animal. It is what zoologists call a "ring species" - populations are found right around the world in a continuous band. Black-backs on this side of the globe can, of course, mate successfully; they can also mate successfully with black-backs a few degrees further on, and those gulls can in turn mate with their neighbours. However, "our" black-backs cannot mate with black-backs on the far side of the world. Cursed gull! Why must you taunt us with your giddy global go-round of copulation?
Yes, it's the gull that troubles me - not the ins and outs of evolution by natural selection. To be frank, I don't like gulls, I don't like their yellow eyes, their monocular stare, their thermal posturing - the way they insist on hanging about. My idea of hell would've been to be marooned on St Kilda, when that remote Hebridean island was still utterly dependent on seafowl. The St Kildans ate puffins, gannets and fulmars. The exported their feathers, they used gannet corpses as shoes (I kid you not), and anointed the umbilicuses of their newborn babies with fulmar oil; a practice which, by introducing tetanus, greatly increased infant mortalities and led - some believe - to the eventual evacuation of the island in the 1930s.
It was perfectly all right when gulls kept to their places. If you go walking along the high sea cliffs of the British Isles you can reasonably expect to run across a few thousand gulls. Likewise, if you pitch up in any seaside town the world over, the presence of a gull, standing on a rooftop opposite your hotel window and waiting for you to go out and buy some chips is a reasonable accompaniment to the whole à la plage experience. But that wasn't enough for the gulls - oh no. It's as if they've spent the past half century or so watching Hitchcock's The Birds over and over again, before finally deciding to cash in on film stardom with a few personal appearances.
Nowadays you can see gulls opening supermarkets in the middle of England at any time of the year. "Look," I often say to these narcissistic fowl, "you are seagulls, get it?" They never deign to answer, save with their high-pitched yelping, which sounds like fingernails scraping the blue board of the sky. Supermarkets, town centres, landfill sites in the East Midlands, the playing fields of our most select public schools - there is nowhere sufficiently urbane, or far enough away from the briny, that the gulls don't consider it a reasonable habitat. A few nights ago I saw a common gull proceeding along the South Lambeth Road with great insouciance - and riding a fox.
The truth is I do understand the reason for this horrific bouleversé - we have only ourselves to blame. We've screwed up their habitat, while leaving large quantities of edible muck lying around ours. You can hardly blame a bird for opportunism. So why this Self-gull antagonism? Well, it goes back to the sojourn I had some years ago on the Shetland island of Unst. I put up with the Laird, whose reduced circumstances meant that he and the Lady were operating a B&B. It being midsummer, I resolved to walk in the midnight sun of those parts, to the uttermost point of Britain, a cape called Hermaness.
Now, it happened that the Laird's grandfather, a keen ornithologist, had been responsible for the preservation of the great skua, a gull known colloquially as the bonxie. These bonxies were encouraged to breed on Hermaness, and breed they did. They are large, brownish birds, aggressively territorial, and with the rather alarming habit of dive-bombing the heads of any humans who venture too close to their nests. As I slogged up on to the top of the ness, the first bonxie lifted lazily up off its nesting site and came swooping down towards me. If it hadn't have been for a convenient stick that I was able to whirr about my head, my eyeball would have ended up as beak ornament - or so I suspected.
I couldn't prevent a tremendous howl of fear and rage: "Fucking bonxies!" Whereupon about 60 more took to the air. The next two hours were a vigorous workout for arms as well as legs, as skua after skua made its run. When I got back to civilisation some wiseacre told me all you have to do stop the bonxies hitting you is wear a bobble hat, because they always aim for the highest point. Still, I wasn't to know this - anymore that the foul fowl were to know that I'd no sooner eat their offspring than ... err, eat their offspring.
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