Facts about Geese

At a glance

Of the thirteen species of geese which have been recorded in Britain, several are rare visitors (Cackling, Lesser White-fronted, Red-breasted, and Snow for example) and just three breed here regularly: the Greylag (the ancestor of the domestic goose, feral breeding pairs are boosted in the winter by around half a million birds from further north); the Canada Goose (a non-native species first introduced to the UK in the 17th-century and now well-established here); and the Barnacle Goose (feral flocks breed here in small numbers, but 58,000 birds from the Greenland breeding population and 33,000 from Svalbard in northern Russia join them to winter here).

The rest are very much winter visitors arriving in autumn and leaving the UK again in the spring when they head back to breeding areas from Greenland and Iceland right across to Arctic Russia. Up to 500,000 Pink-footed Geese winter here, for example, along with 100,000 Brent Geese, and 13.500 Greater White-fronts.

Geese are large birds, typically flying in and out of favoured sites in large flocks. Shooters have always targetted them because they’re relatively easy to find, and are relatively easy to hit. Huge numbers of geese used to be killed by ‘wildfowlers’ (particularly to supply meat markets in London and other major cities), and with little or no knowledge of how successful or not breeding may have been in the preceding summer the numbers taken caused huge declines in many species. Geese do now have protection, and just four species can be killed for ‘sport’ in England, Scotland, and Wales: Canada, Greylag, Pinkfoot and Greater White-fronts.

Much of the land wintering geese roost on is held by conservation organisations. The world famous HQ of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Slimbridge, for example, protects many of the UK’s Greater White-fronts; the WWT’s Martin Mere is important for large numbers of Pink-feet (80% of the global population winters in the UK); and the WWT’s Caerlaverock is hugely important for Barnacle Geese. It’s when these birds head out to feed away from nature reserves that problems occur.

Large numbers of wintering geese (with the exception of the Brent which feeds on eel-grass and seaweeds in estuaries and salt marshes) graze on what are now agricultural fields, often on cereals, carrots, and pasture. Sometimes – for example where Pink-feet graze in winter on the unwanted tops of sugar beet and don’t move out into more valuable crops – no damage is done and farmers may in fact benefit, but the killing of ‘pest’ geese under the General Licence in parts of Scotland has become a notorious animal welfare issue.

The Islay Sustainable Goose Management Scheme run by NatureScot, for example, sees thousands of Greenland Barnacle Geese (ie the part of the Barnacle Geese population that breed in Greenland, 50% of which winters on Islay) being shot under licence every year.

The Strategy was developed in 2014 and aims to reduce damage to crops on Islay by reducing the number of Greenland Barnacle Geese and to maintain and increase the numbers of Greenland Greater White-fronted Geese (a scarce subspecies with a global population size of around 20,000) by providing undisturbed feeding areas and trialling diversionary feeding. Red-listed in the UK and considered Endangered by the IUCN, Greenland White-fronted Geese are declining and are of the highest conservation concern of the UK’s geese. It’s sad (to say the least) that conflicts between wildlife and profits so often lead to the gun being used.

Threats to geese have long included habitat change, coastal development, and of course shooting, but conservation organisations have recently been looking into what effect the climate crisis might now be having on, for example, snow conditions in western Greenland where many of our scarce geese nest.

It is thought likely that changing conditions are impacting Greenland White-front breeding success, because a warm spring can mean more snowfall in western Greenland and if snow covers key breeding and feeding areas birds may choose not to nest. Rising sea levels around Britain’s coastlines may well also inundate low-lying and important roosting sites, forcing geese inland leading to more conflict with agriculture.

Typically selfish, shooting is always waiting in the wings looking for more wildlife to kill. In 2018, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust issued a warning that Barnacle Geese were in danger of being added to the ‘quarry list’ again. This was because numbers of Svalbard Barnacle Geese had risen “from possibly just 100s in the 1940s to 42,000 today”. As WWT pointed out though, no data exists to show whether the new figures show a full recovery or whether shooting would again put the species at risk.

Additionally, Longyearbyen on Svalbard, has been called “the fastest warming town on Earth” and waters right across the Arctic are increasingly being poisoned by industrial toxins, it seems to us at Protect The Wild to be nonsensical to even suggest allowing the shooting of Barnacle Geese for ‘sport’ again.

In a notorious 2012 article titled ‘Bring back Brents’, the Countryside Alliance’s Tim Bonner applauded the recovery of the Brent Goose but lamented the fact they were still protected. “We practical conservationists [sic]” he wrote, “must not allow a precedent to be set of a large, sustainable population of a potential quarry species going unexploited simply because some people do not want us to shoot them”. Given the opportunity shooters would take aim at almost everything that flies. We can’t allow that to happen.

How will we end the shooting industry?