Basin Notes - September 2006

Greylag Geese

Our few remaining wetland areas are fascinating places, where the concentration and range of flora and fauna seems to be so much more intense, and none less so than at the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Balgavies Loch where a visitor recently, in early summer, was astonished to see a family of Greylag goslings, something which is only expected to be found in small numbers in the far north of Scotland and the Western Isles, or in their more usual breeding haunts in Greenland and Spitzbergen.

But a few centuries ago the Greylag was an all the year round part of our everyday life, and, indeed, was the original source of our farm yard goose. However, improved farming methods and land management leading to extensive drainage of our wetland areas, coupled with the effects of sport shooting, caused the Greylag to withdraw in early spring to the less disturbed regions of the far north, there to raise their families of goslings and moult, returning to our stubble fields as the winter storms began to encroach.

The absence of the Greylag was felt to such an extent by the sporting fraternity that by the 1920s efforts were being made by the Wildlife Association of Great Britain and Ireland to reintroduce the species by taking eggs from nests in the north of Scotland and hatching them in areas where they would be most suitably placed for shooting. Birds such as these formed the basis for the flock which is now established in the Balgavies/Forfar loch area, and which now numbers about one hundred birds.

A few breed each year, at both Balgavies and Rescobie lochs, and a bonnie sight they make on the water with one parent leading the little flotilla and one bringing up the rear! However numbers are limited by the attention of both fox and mink.

At one point Angus Council rangers at Forfar loch, in an effort to reduce the numbers around the leisure centre where they were felt to be contaminating the greensward, captured about thirty birds, which were 'adopted' by a lady in the Black Isle but as soon as their feathers grew again, they headed back south for the green braes of Angus!

When the migrant geese arrive in autumn the local flock can be seen to maintain a seemly, or perhaps haughty might be more appropriate, distance, keeping to their own end of the loch. On a fine frosty morning they make an impressive sight as they come in, just clearing the tree tops, flapping along just above the stall and ga ga ga-ing noisily amongst themselves, to flop down onto the loch.

Indeed, the migrants might be attracted to the loch because of the resident group. Nearby, at Montrose Basin, the number of migrants has been falling over the last 20 years, from 1400 in January 1985 to only 116 in March 2006. Whether these birds have moved inland for their winter sojourn in and around Forfar or moved to some more remote site is a mystery. Either way, it is heartening to know there are still some Greylags in Angus.

In conservation terms Richard Hearn of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust sees flocks such as that at Balgavies as a real success story in terms of the re-introduction of a near extinct breeding species. We are indeed fortunate to have such an interesting flock of geese, and an equally interesting loch where they feel safe enough to make their home - right on our own doorstep.