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Why is the population of geese increasing so much?

Though it may seem remarkable now, 50 years ago a sighting of geese was worth a note in any wildfowler’s diary, writes David Tomlinson

There is nothing quite like a distinctive smell or scent to whisk us back in time, unlocking memories from years before. There are a number of smells I find particularly poignant, ranging from May blossom to the distinctive odour of horses, stamping in their stables, waiting for a day’s hunting. Another wonderfully evocative scent I’d nearly forgotten is that of fresh, glutinous mud on the saltings. Coupled with the yelping of redshanks and the distant babble of geese, it transports me straight back to distant days on the marshes.

I was never a passionate wildfowler, possibly because my spaniels were never really happy below the sea wall, but I still treasure my memories of days on the saltings, as I was reminded during a recent visit to North Norfolk. I was out at dawn, and as I walked my dogs along the sea wall at Burnham Overy Staithe I met two wildfowlers, accompanied by a pair of labradors, making their way off the marsh after morning flight. They had shot a couple of pinkfeet and a wigeon, so had enjoyed good sport. We had a chat: the senior of the two told me he had been fowling there for nearly 50 years, during which he had witnessed many changes.

Changes are seldom for the better, but there was a mixture of good and bad. The bad, he told me, was the anti-shooting sentiments of many of the big landowners along the coast, including the National Trust and the RSPB. However, the strength of the local wildfowling clubs, along with their strong conservation credentials, ensures the tradition of wildfowling continues. From a shooting perspective, the birds are still there, and many in greater numbers than there were 50 years ago.

There is now an abundance of greylag geese, though bagging one can be a quite a challenge


A record count

According to Riviere, writing in his A History of the Birds of Norfolk (1930), the numbers of pinkfeet wintering in Norfolk a century ago ran into many thousands. “There are few more wonderful sights or sounds than their arrival from the sea at dawn or their return at dusk. Here, lying up before daylight behind the range of sandhills, generations of Norfolk gunners have shot at them as they pass over.” 

In the 1930s, numbers of pinks peaked at between 5,000 and 8,000 birds, but World War II did away with them. An anti-aircraft firing range was established at Stiffkey, and the geese deserted Norfolk for decades. 

They stayed away until the 1976–77 winter, when a flock of 250 made a brief appearance at Holkham. However, it wasn’t until the winter of 1980–81 that regular wintering began, and numbers soon started to build up. Three years later the peak count was of 1,500 geese, while in December 1997 a record 76,170 geese were counted, at the time a third of almost all the pink-footed geese in the world. 

Wildfowlers in the 1800s would have experienced a very different bird population to today

These days around 100,000 pinkfeet winter in North Norfolk, with the first small parties arriving in mid-September, followed by the great squadrons a few weeks later. 

There are a number of factors that have driven the increase, of which one of the most significant is lack of disturbance on their roosts. The extensive freshwater marshes of the Holkham estate are managed for the geese, and without Holkham as a base, numbers would certainly be much lower. 

Another major factor is sugar beet. When the beet is harvested, the farmers leave the tops for the geese to eat, providing a vital food recourse for these birds. Once the beet harvest or campaign is over at the end of January, the pinkfeet move back to Lancashire and Scotland.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be a member of one of the North Norfolk wildfowling clubs, the opportunities to flight the geese are few, as they tend to feed on the large, private
estates such as Sandringham, Houghton and, of course, Holkham. Some of the clubs do offer day tickets — check on the BASC website for details — but bagging a Norfolk pinkfoot remains a major challenge, despite the numbers now wintering in the county.

When the sugar beet is harvested, the farmers leave the tops for the pink-footed geese to eat


Armies of greylags

Though it may seem remarkable today, half a century ago greylag geese (pictured above) were still rare birds in Norfolk. The first breeding record in the county in recent times was of a single pair at Hickling in 1961. It was during the 1960s that the Wildfowlers’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland (WAGBI, now BASC) encouraged the release of greylags in England, sourcing the birds from wild populations in the Outer Hebrides, and these released birds are the ancestors of the great armies of greylag geese that can be found throughout East Anglia today. 

These geese are resident, and many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of pairs breed. Despite their abundance they are wary birds, well able to look after themselves. Many a safety catch is slipped in anticipation of a shot at a greylag, but surprisingly few are bagged. 

It takes a practised eye to tell a flying greylag from a pinkfoot, despite the fact that the former is a considerably bigger and coarser bird. Much the best way to tell the two apart is by ear: the greylag’s call is loud and nasal and sounds just like a farmyard goose, whereas the pinkfoot’s call is softer, more musical, and with a gentle and distinctive wink-wink.  

A skilled goose man will also be able to pick up and identify the higher-pitched calls of the white-fronted geese, often described as having a laughing quality. Though whitefronts winter every year in Norfolk, their numbers are small, their appearances less predictable. Some years they might arrive in October, whereas in others none appear until well into December. 

Unlike the pinkfeet, which breed predominantly in Iceland, whitefronts nest on the tundra of northern Russia. Huge numbers winter in the Netherlands, where most now remain throughout the dark months. The thousands that used to winter on the New Grounds on the Severn, or on the North Kent marshes, are now distant memories. 

These geese undertake what is called short-stopping. As they can now find sufficient food in the Netherlands, there’s no need for them to continue on to England, though a cold snap in mid-winter will push birds across the North Sea to our southern counties. 

If you wanted to hear the wonderful yapping calls of barnacle geese 50 years ago, you would have headed for the Solway or the Isle of Islay. Today, though, these handsome, compact geese are a familiar sight and sound in winter around the coast of East Anglia, with flocks of over 1,000 birds recorded regularly in Suffolk. Curiously, they tend to be ignored by the birdwatchers, who dismiss them as feral birds, the descendants of wanderers from wildfowl collections. However, the numbers are too high for them to be all home-bred, and it seems likely that hundreds of Dutch-bred birds are now wintering here. 

Identification skills are crucial for the accurate selection of geese

The origin of the rapidly expanding Dutch population is thought to be birds drawn from breeding grounds around the Barents Sea in the Russian Arctic. These birds traditionally wintered in the Netherlands, but increasing numbers remained in the spring to breed and the population is now thought to be as high as 22,000 pairs. Successive Dutch governments have been notably anti-shooting, but the growing number of geese has become a threat to crops, so what are called hunting derogations now exist to allow numbers to be controlled by shooting. Despite this, the flocks continue to grow, and it seems likely that more and more will spill across to eastern England. 

It’s nearly 70 years since brent geese were given protection in the UK. Numbers reached a low point in the mid-1950s, when only a few thousand wintered here. Their chief problem was a decline in the eelgrass or zostera beds on which they fed. Today as many as 100,000 winter along our south and east coasts. There have been calls for them to be put back on the shooting list but, unlike the grey geese, brent are typically tame, so aren’t a challenging quarry species. Equally damning, they are reputed to make very poor eating.


Something to celebrate

A sighting of geese in the 1960s or 1970s was worth a note in any wildfowler’s diary, but not any more: an outing without seeing geese is more unusual. It’s fashionable to cite climate change as the reason for fluctuations in bird numbers, but though our warmer winters may have led to fewer whitefronts coming from the near Continent, it’s had little to do with the huge increase in pinkfeet now wintering in Norfolk, nor the burgeoning greylag population. Similarly, why barnacle geese have given up flying to the Barents Sea
and now nest in the Netherlands, and probably Suffolk and Norfolk, is difficult to explain. 

But the good news is that we have more geese than we have ever had, surely something to celebrate whether you’re a wildfowler, birdwatcher or simply someone who loves the sounds, and smells, of wild places.