I was out on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex in January, not far from the town of Maldon, which sits at its end. I was vaguely hoping that the Canadas that roost out on the river might cross my marsh on the way to the arable fields behind me. Only three came, though, and they were well wide. A single teal did fly within range and fell dead on the mud. Otherwise it was a quiet morning, apart from the huge flight of brent geese leaving the estuary to feed on adjacent fi elds. The Blackwater holds up to 15,000 dark-bellied brent in January and the sky can fill with them as the tide moves them from roosts to feeding grounds and back again.
As the sun came over the horizon I started to pick up a strange sound coming from behind me, and it became louder as I walked back towards land. It seemed to be a variation on a foxlamper?s wounded rabbit squeal, but with more of a growl. From the top of the sea wall I could see across the arable fields behind, and it became clear that the noise was coming from a loudspeaker in the middle of the nearest field. It was the latest escalation in the battle between the farmers who plough and plant the fields around the estuary and those thousands of brent geese that migrate to the Essex coast every winter.
Brent are quick learners. The gas guns that scare pigeon from practically every field in East Anglia are next to useless when deployed to scare brent. Farmers tell of the little black geese grazing within yards of them, oblivious to the regular explosions. The only consistently effective scaring method is a regular human presence in the form of labour-intensive patrols of fields used by the geese. Those fields tend to be visited year after year and are usually very near to the estuary, often the first field over the sea wall. Unlike grey geese, the brent will never move far from the sea ? indeed, until relatively recently they rarely left the estuary at all.
The brent crisis
The great crisis in the recent history of the brent, and the reason it is now a protected species, came in the 1930s when a disease wiped out zostera, the marine grass of the estuary, which the brent relied on completely for its diet. Prior to that, the goose had been so numerous that even a huge annual harvest taken by the professional puntgunners who thronged the south and east coasts could have no impact on their numbers. The sudden disappearance of its food supply, however, had a catastrophic impact on the species. The population could not recover while the survivors were still hunted across most of their range. Protection in the UK came in 1954, four years after shooting was stopped in the Netherlands. France followed suit in 1966 (though reports allege that there is still a sizeable illegal harvest), and Denmark in 1972. From the 1970s onwards, the population started to recover from a low of 16,500 individuals in the 1950s to more than 300,000 today. There will have been more dark-bellied brent on the Wash this winter than there were in the entire world 50 years ago.
The recovery of the brent is a great conservation success story. It was rightly protected when the population could not sustain the pressure of hunting, but now that the species has recovered to pre-crash numbers, what should happen? The major limiting factor on the brent goose population seems to be predation by the arctic fox on its breeding ground, and brents are being shot under licence in the UK. In 2010, 78 farmers were licensed to shoot geese to prevent serious damage to crops, and more than 500 birds were shot. The number of licences issued to shoot brent has dropped slightly in the past few years, but only because some of the farms where most geese were feeding are now being paid to manage fields to encourage geese and keep them off valuable crops.
The protectionists have recognised that the case for the full return of the brent to European quarry lists is strong, and they are already manning the barricades. They argue that extreme variation in the brent?s breeding success, which can fluctuate between three per cent and 30 per cent in any year, makes it a vulnerable species, though there is no evidence that it was a more consistent breeder in the 19th century, when it prospered regardless of huge market culls. They raise the spectre of mass-slaughter of naive geese, ignoring the evidence that brent change their behaviour very quickly when licensed culling takes place and that, in the UK, the areas brent could be shot in are among the most controlled and carefully managed in the country.
Goose steps to take
We practical conservationists 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 (or anything else). The steps to putting brent back on the quarry list are clear, if not entirely straightforward. First, the UK must be added to the list of countries that can, if conditions of the EU Birds Directive are met, allow the hunting of brent geese. Then the Government could, on advice that the population could sustain an annual harvest, make provision for an open season.
Returning brent to the quarry list would not have a direct benefit for many, given the limited areas it visits during winter migration, but the question of whether we should again be able to hunt them is an important one for everyone who shoots wild birds. The principle of sustainable hunting is incorporated into UK law through the EU Birds Directive, which states that hunting of a species may take place where it complies with the principles of wise use and ecologically balanced control of the species of birds concerned and that this practice is compatible as regards the population of these species.
If the hunting of a species as buoyant and numerous as the brent cannot be justified, how safe can we feel about retaining the right to shoot other wild and migratory species when their populations might even be declining for reasons which have no connection to shooting? This is not just about a single quarry species, it is about a fundamental principle.