This article first appeared in the December edition of iScot.
By Fiona Grahame
The geese seem to return to Orkney earlier every year. It marks the end of our summer more poignantly than the glimmer of the evenings. Greylags and pink feet descend on our fields and lochs in their thousands. Even through the night you can hear the skreck of their calls drifting over the landscape.
Orkney has a population of 25,000 geese who remain with us all year round but as winter approaches they are joined by over 10,000 travellers who have flown hundreds of miles from Iceland to reach our islands. Other birds come too and a few leave. Orkney, a delight for generations of ornithologists, is a haven for birds.
The Greylag goose is the only native species of goose breeding in Britain. In the 18th Century it was wide spread . By the 19th century overhunting and the drainage of land drove it from England and Wales . It was not until the later half of the 20th Century that it seems the greylags became part of the Orkney countryside, whether introduced, as some suggest, or as migratory birds that decided to remain.
Most farmers have no love for the geese which trample across the newly harvested fields. There are no recorded accounts of geese being on unharvested fields as they seem to prefer the stubble. Numerous ingenious attempts are made to deter the birds but none succeed. A few farmers, mainly those who are organic producers have no conflict with the geese thinking that the droppings they leave behind on the fields are a valuable source of free manure.
Wild geese are protected in Scotland but as in all things there are always exceptions and for the geese this is not good news. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 means that Greylag, pink-footed geese and Canada geese can be shot between 1st September and 31st January (20th February below high water mark). At any other time of the year you need a special licence to shoot them. Scottish Natural Heritage grants the licences.
At first it was decided that to control the geese in Orkney a cull was necessary despite the counter argument that such an approach would not be effective. Farmers, for a fee, allow groups of shooters onto their land to entice the geese from their rest on the lochs and fields up into the sky where they are able to shoot them in flight. After a while it was decided that the meat could be sold. Before this most carcasses were dumped.
Flocks of Men, albeit smaller ones than the geese, travel further than the migratory birds to reach Orkney. They have come for a Shooting Holiday.
They dress in camouflage fatigues in case the slumbering birds on the loch should spot them hiding behind bales of hay where they seductively call to the geese. As the calls go out vast skeins of birds take to the air scudding across the skies, swooshing round and above, swirling in formation. Numerous shots find a target and a bird drops, followed by several more. The magnificent stones of the Neolithic Ring of Brodgar echo with the crack of gun fire.
A similar routine occurs at the rising of the sun with the morning shooters. The birds are feeding so slight changes are needed for a kill to be successful. .
When the shooting is over the men arrange their trophies in a bird body count and photograph it as a proud memento. There’s more than geese there: ducks, widgeon, teal, something else feathered that may have got in the way. The shooting holidays are financially very successful and bring a different kind of visitor to the islands than perhaps our perceived peacefulness belies.
According to the shooters they are conservationists. The geese might think otherwise.
See also: The abundance and distribution of British Greylag Geese in Orkney, August 2016
Hmmmm. A couple of other angles on this, for which I may draw down the wrath of some.
In my pieces of writing, I have often mentioned Fiona-Next-Door. When we moved in next door, nearly 11 years ago, Fiona had various ‘fowls’, including two big, domestic geese ( Ali and Jesse) and one wild goose which she had found with a hurt wing, and looked after. This was called Spike, and he never lost his wild ways – he accepted me feeding him, but would never be my friend. Sometime later, when Fiona was working at Woodwick House, another hurt goose was found there, and she brought that one home and looked after it, too. Fiona called it Gordon, but I called it Woodwick. (I called Ali and Jesse – Wobble-chops and Gobbler – because………..) I’m telling this, as a heartening tale of a human being whose response to a bird isn’t to pointlessly kill it, but to help it to live.
I did used to wonder what Fiona’s two wild geese made of it, when the wild birds flew over each winter and spring. Presumably, they would still have had the same impulse to migrate, but could only stand and watch their wild relations, flying over in neat V form. Still, better than being deed – they were very comfortable in their enclosure, being fed and cuddled by Fiona.
I love to see and hear the wild geese arrive in the winter. Hearing them, especially in the evening, has a great charm to it. Seeing them, at any time, skeining across the sky – anyone with any kind of soul, any love of LIFE, stands and looks up and follows their flight. Maybe we even pick up some of their feeling, and have a hankering to sweep away, across the sky ourselves. To quote Robert Plant again, “If you’re troubled, send your mind out on vacation, let it wander like the wild geese in the west.”
Each year, I forget about the hunters, and, when the banging starts, I wonder what’s happening – has Trump finally gone completely nuts and started the next war? Then Mike reminds me that the hunters will have arrived.
OK, it could be said that they bring income to the islands. I suppose they do, and they could say that I’m just a soppy old biddy, who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Fiona’s article (Fiona G. that is), covers whether or not there is any actual need for the cull, so I won’t go into that. What I will say is – money isn’t everything, and I’d rather be a soppy old biddy, than someone who likes to/needs to pointlessly kill things, to bolster their own low self-image. That’s how I see them. They see themselves, as Rambo figures, in their camouflage gear. I see them as…well…..nasty little boys who might learn to be better.
Bird watchers bring as much, if not more income, and hurt nothing.
Here’s where I might really get into trouble. Sometimes, we go to the Standing Stones Hotel, which appears to be a regular haunt of these mistaken folk. Their mud-spattered camouflaged jeeps are outside – they sit about in the bar, in their camouflage gear, talking about …….killing. It is a public house, so, any member of the public can sit there and talk about whatever they choose. But……I hate to hear that talk. It offends me. I leave. They might possibly be just as offended by my going on about not killing things, if they paid it any mind – that’s up to them.
I avoid the Standing Stones Hotel, in killing season.
And so, I come to two very good, clear thinking, intelligent, good hearted folk who were killers, who were very good at it, too, but who learnt to be better and to have a bit more regard for themselves and the world around them. Peter Scott and T. H. White. Both started as hunters, then learnt to question what they were doing, and, in Peter Scott’s case, became a conservationist. They grew up. I wish those people who come here to kill would so the same.
Let’s have more folk with Fiona’s (Next-Door that is) response of kindness and care, and less of these silly little boys and their guns.
That, as usual, is just my opinion.
I repeat, I’d rather be a soppy old biddy, than an insecure killer.
Well said, Bernie. I’m of your mind too.
And a thought provoking article from Fiona.
Happy New Year to you both.
A poorly researched article. Did you speak to any farmers? Resident population is currently c. 25,000 but without culling pressure Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) predicts that would now be closer to 50,000. When migratory geese are here population rises to c. 80,000.
Correct that geese prefer the easy pickings of spilt and fallen grain in newly harvested fields but harvest in Orkney last for about 4-6 weeks the other 46 weeks they will be grazing growing crops. I have yet to meet a farmers who appreciates the fertility value of geese dropping as the value returned will not off set the crop eatten or destroyed by the geese.
The cull of geese was conducted in august of the last 5 years under special license from SNH. Teams of local volunteer hunters undertook the shooting. No financial gain was made by shooter or farmers from the cull.
Actually farmers were spoken to, official reports were read and shooting is conducted under license as is stated in the article. It was well researched. So it would be excellent to find the official reports and research that you allude to in your remarks.
Thank you David. The Scottish Government publication is from 2010. The SNH one has not got the certified data in it only suggested. For writing the article, amongst other reports,the 2016 Orkney Report was used which is funded by SNH. The 2017 Orkney Report is still to be published. The unofficial accounts for 2017 suggest there has been a massive increase in the geese population in Orkney for 2017 which would also indicate that the cull is not working. Perhaps the solution to the problem requires researchers to look at reasons for this increase.
If a cull is needed, of anything, then it’s needed. (I’m not even going there, re. humans and what they are doing to the world, and the land, and the seas!))
Also, if a person needs to kill, to eat, then, that’s needed, too. They don’t tend to dress up and go about in gaggles, to do so.
It’s the urge to kill for ‘fun’ that I find questionable. That, and the paraphenalia and posturing that goes with it.
A cull, is a cull, and is usually done for a reason. Killing for ‘sport’ is…killing for sport, and I genuinely wonder about the state of mind of those who choose to do so.