Basin Notes - October 2012

Geese Galore

Pinkfooted geese continue to arrive at the Basin in huge numbers, returning from their breeding territories in Iceland and Greenland. There were 63,000 present by the third week in September, which equals the highest count of last year. Last year's maximum count was later in the year however, and the next few weeks will reveal whether the birds are simply returning earlier this year or whether we are on course for another record.

It is thought that before the 1900s pink-footed geese were rare winter visitors to Scotland and as recently as the mid-1980s the highest count ever recorded at a single site was 27,500. Since then there has been an extraordinary rise in the number of birds present in Scotland with several sites, including Montrose, seeing their October counts rise from about 30,000 to more than 55,000.

The number remaining in Scotland declines quite sharply as the winter progresses and many of the geese will continue their journey south to other roost sites, largely on the east coast of England. Over 10,000 pink-footed geese usually remain at Montrose for the whole winter, so the familiar "wink, wink" call will be with us for months to come.

Greylag geese are much less common around Montrose, although unlike the pink footed goose this is a species which is now breeding in many areas of Scotland. In winter, the resident population is joined by many thousands of winter visitors from Iceland, although their numbers do not rival those of the pink-footed geese.

The resident population of greylag geese can be divided into two main groups. In the Western Highlands and the Outer Hebrides they are thought to be genuinely native birds from indigenous stock, but on the rest of the Scottish mainland and on Orkney they are a naturalised population. The origins of the naturalised group are complex, with some being descendants of deliberately re-introduced birds and others being descendants of Icelandic migrants now breeding in Scotland.

Numbers of resident greylag geese are increasing significantly throughout Scotland. Resident populations raise different conservation and management problems to migratory birds as they are feeding throughout the year. In Orkney, landowners and farmers have argued that the pressure from grazing greylag geese has increased to such an extent that a cull is necessary, and 5,500 resident birds (about 25 per cent of the population) are being shot before the arrival of the migratory geese.

Like all wildlife culls, the Orkney pilot scheme is proving to be controversial, and as other culls of greylag geese are being considered on several of the Western Isles, the results will be closely monitored by Scottish Natural Heritage. With the number of resident greylag geese doubling in Orkney every four years or so, it is widely agreed that action needs to be taken, but there is disagreement about whether a cull is the most effective strategy. Sometimes successful species are required to pay a heavy price.