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.