BTO: Greylag is making its presence felt

Greylag goose.'Picture: BTO/Rob Robinson

Greylag goose.'Picture: BTO/Rob Robinson

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There is something uncouth about the noisy honking of a greylag goose and it’s not surprising that they, and their domesticated cousins, make fine guard-geese, writes the BTO’s Graham Appleton.

Intruders are not going to pass unnoticed and an annoyed gander can inflict a painful peck.

These geese make their presence felt in other ways too; farmers are well aware that grazing geese can damage the new growth of autumn-sown cereals, both by nibbling and waddling around in muddy conditions, and BTO scientists have been trying to work out how much of a problem these geese pose for conservation managers.

Greylag geese are becoming more and more common across the UK. The change in numbers of greylag geese has been massive; populations have exploded following the release of 938 hand-reared geese at 333 sites in 13 English and Welsh counties in the 1960s. Eggs had been collected from nests in Scotland with a view to adding extra interest for people keen to shoot waterfowl in the winter without having to travel north. The introduced birds found life very much to their liking, with grass to graze and plenty of pools and gravel pits where they could safely spend the night. As had been hoped, the youngsters soon started to breed.

By the time that the first BTO-led breeding Atlas came to an end in 1972, there was evidence of confirmed/probable breeding in 15 10km squares across East Anglia, out of 126 in the whole of the British Isles. In the recently-published Bird Atlas 2007-11, the species was only missing from four East Anglian squares! Across Britain and Ireland, 133 squares in 1968-72, became 431 in 1988-91 and 1,579 this time around.

The introductions certainly worked but I’m not sure that local farmers would consider the exercise a success!

BTO staff have been looking at the movements of Canada and greylag geese caught in Thetford and at Hickling Broad, and measuring the amount of damage these birds cause to reed beds which fringe lakes and rivers. These reed beds are home to birds like sedge and reed warblers, which fly to East Anglia from the other side of the Sahara each spring, as well as coots, moorhens and grebes which build nests in floating vegetation.

On a practical front, the reeds also protect the banks of the broads by dissipating the wash that is created by passing boats. We have discovered that our Thetford birds don’t move much but that some of the birds that gather at Hickling in the summer spend the winter months in sites in Suffolk. If you see a bird with an orange collar, please see if you can read the black letters and let us know at geese@bto.org