Liam Farrell: How sea birds taught me a lesson about life

I'm on the southern coast of Ireland trying to chill out, and it's been a magical day. Early this morning I was whale watching.

Our skipper had that sea-weathered, ruddy-faced worthiness that makes deskbound people like me feel totally inadequate, but I'm used to that feeling so I soon got over it.

Suddenly we were sailing through a dense sea mist amid great rafts of shearwaters and guillemots, minke whales spouting beside the boat, dolphins and porpoises frolicking in the wake, the less hardy sailors chucking spectacularly and colourfully over the side (learning point: herring gulls eat vomit), scarcely a sound, except the sussuration of the waves, the whish of gannets' wings, the retching noises coming from the stern and the muffled sniggers from the rest of us; we were having a whale of a time.

Afterwards I was sitting by the pier in Cape Clear Island, eating a bowl of seafood chowder big enough to choke a horse, with crab claws and a few (maybe more) pints of Guinness to follow. Life ain't so bad, I was thinking, when I noticed two curlews feeding on the foreshore, picking up the occasional ragworm, then dunking it in the tide to wash the mud off before sucking it down. They must have read the right textbooks, this was classic curlew behaviour, they were just keeping themselves to themselves, minding their own business, doing what they are good at.

Then a greater black-backed gull swooped down and began to harass them. Greater black-backed gulls steal food from smaller and less aggressive creatures, such as kittiwakes, puffins and dwarves. But on this occasion the gull wasn't even bothering to steal food; it was just being a bully, throwing its weight around because it could, and very shortly the curlews gave up and flew off.

Despite my contentment, the analogy with the relationship between the government and GPs was too uncomfortable to ignore; 20 years of bullying and harassment, 20 years of trying to do the right thing in the face of constant and gratuitous reorganisation and instability and flux.

'I know how you feel, brother,' I called, as the curlews skimmed overhead; they strafed me with guano, but I'm sure it was accidental.

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at

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