The problem with geese: A farmer’s nuisance, but a musician’s dream

These avian visitors are a nuisance when they eat all the grass, but winters would be bleaker without their music. Jamie Blackett explains his conundrum.

The winter routine on the farm includes a game of ‘sheep-or-geese’. This involves trying to ensure the lambs eat the grass, thus earning me the princely sum of 70p per hogget per week, rather than the visiting geese, which make me diddly-squat. It says something for the state of agriculture that this is currently our most profitable enterprise.

I expect the usual suspects will send me hate mail for chasing the geese off ‘land they no longer own’ to make way for their bêtes noirs (and not only the black ones). Sheep have been around these parts since God was a boy, but not since God was a baby, so they are proscribed by certain environmentalists who consider that sheep have no place in the British countryside.

They can say this with smug solemnity – particularly in the month of Sanctimonuary – because the only cutlets that pass their lips are plant-based (albeit jet-fresh, industrially farmed, processed soya from former rainforests). I suspect some would rather farmers were proscribed, too, but there’s a bit of inconsistency in this.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if we removed the sheep and ‘wilded’ our farm, it would revert to thick scrub, which the geese wouldn’t like one bit – a factor in the rise in the goose population is that they winter so well off the rich grass, with side orders of potatoes and winter cereals grown by British farming plc, that they return to the Arctic Circle in top condition to breed.

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Actually, deep down, I have a sneaking sympathy with the goose lobby, but please don’t tell its members that. Winters here in the drizzle would be depressing indeed without the magic of goose music; the dawn chorus and evensong would be thin gruel without the joyful honking of skeins of geese going inland to feed with the rising sun at their backs, then out again in the gloaming to the mudflats to roost.

Migrating Pink Footed geese over wintering on marshland at Holkham North Norfolk coast East Anglia Eastern England

Seeing their flocks grazing our fields is as calmly satisfying as watching over the woolly-backed variety, but needs must and, in any case, the geese are well able to look after themselves.

The writer and naturalist BB understood geese perfectly when he entitled his seminal novel about them Manka the Sky Gypsy. The title captures the essential quality of a goose, which is that it has evolved to go where it pleases and eat what it fancies, with highly effective reflexes to defend itself against its main predator, Homo sapiens.

There was a convenient theory – as most theories seem to be these days – that the grey geese were hefted to one particular area for the winter and only moved if forced to by bad weather. If the nasty farmer was too hard on them, they would go hungry. However, one year, I helped the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust trap some pink-footed geese here and fix electronic trackers to them, so we are able to see the whereabouts of ‘our geese’ online.

The experiment has nailed a number of myths. For one thing, they don’t stay in the same family groups, but rather change flocks at will. They also treat the whole of the UK as one big farmers’ market. One day, they’re munching our grass, the next they’ve hopped over to Lincolnshire for a spot of veg. It makes sense they would go where food is available and keep their flight muscles in shape for the marathon journey back to their breeding grounds.

White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons)

Not so the barnacle goose: the entire population of the Svalbard barnacle spends the winter on the Solway Firth, mainly in the parish of Kirkbean on the west bank of the Nith or the parish of Glencaple on the east. Their presence is a source of delight, pride, frustration and depression in equal measure to the farmers who host them.

They are protected, so their numbers swell every year – official estimates put their current population at 40,000, which has the same impact on the land as 7,000 sheep. Probably, their numbers are higher. They have been known to chase the sheep into a corner. When I go and scare them off the grass, they merely laugh at me and fly off to the other side of the field.

The only solution is to try and ensure that the goose fields are grazed first, so it was very irritating to find the other morning that the sheep have found a hole in the hedge and are tucking into the next-door stubble. That’s sheep for you.

Jamie Blackett farms in Dumfriesshire and is the author of ‘Red Rag to a Bull: Rural Life in an Urban Age’