RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Riding happily, inches from the turning furrow

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Thankfully there was no Health and Safety at Work Act then...

There should have been, of course. Can you imagine a child today bouncing about on the back of a tractor within inches of the turning furrow, watching the seagulls?

Imagine the broken limbs and the cries of pain that silenced the screams of the excited birds which had been diving for worms within inches of the happy child a few seconds before.

It does not bear thinking about. Tractors and all that heavy equipment of the fields are as lethal as tanks on manoeuvres at Bovington Camp. But you see, we were way-wise then. Quite often the only excitement kids get now is in a safety harness on an indoor climbing cliff.

The shiny brown eyes of the gulls were set like gems in the white satin feathers of their faces. They grabbed and gobbled worms as big as a man’s finger. Now and then among these black-headed gulls would be a common gull.

These had pale beaks and they looked unfriendly. But they had that lovely pale blue in their wings of a fine summer sky

over the sea of East Anglia captured by the likes of Munnings, Constable, and Cotman.

Mother had taken us to the Norwich Castle Museum to see those.

My brother, who was driving the tractor, was 18 years old. He sat for nine hours at a time without a cab, huddled in a greatcoat against the bitter winds sweeping from the North Pole.

I think he was glad of my company and now certainly has no allusions about life before HASAWA.

Today over the skies of Sussex, throngs of gulls search the winter fields for the tractor and plough.

At dawn they fly inland for scores of miles from the harbours and reservoirs.

I always stop to watch them as I did once on Langford Farm at Lavant when I took this photo.

What I would never have seen as a child on ploughed fields that I see today sometimes, are buzzards looking for earthworms.

My record number on one field is 18 buzzards, all hanging about in the damp November days,

hoping to find a worm to eat.

Red kites are now recorded too, following the plough and fighting gulls for food as the brown waves of earth rear up behind and tumble goodies out at their feet.

Both have increased enormously since my childhood.

But gone are the huge flocks of skylarks, finches and pipits I used to see on the winter fields.

The numbers of gulls though have probably remained stable.

In Sussex today the largest number of black-headed gulls is at Bewl Water with about 40,000 in winter. These live together with 15,000 common gulls.During the second world war, gulls were trapped or shot to be sent to London restaurants as game pie or rabbit casserole.

The fishy taste was removed by soaking in vinegar. Anything was eaten in those days in the cities.

That was long before food labelling.

The only food labelling I saw then was on the wrappers of chocolate bars which American GIs occasionally threw to us from their Jeeps and tanks as they rumbled down the village street.

That too was life on another planet, it seems now.