Magazine article The Spectator

The Barnacle Goose Is Very Clever, and Was Once, Technically, a Fish

Magazine article The Spectator

The Barnacle Goose Is Very Clever, and Was Once, Technically, a Fish

Article excerpt

The view, I thought, appeared much as it would to a young barnacle goose. I was diving out of a blustery, dove-grey sky, my wing tips tipping cloud. Far below I could see the browns and greens, the heather and grass, of a big, low-lying Hebridean island. To the east lay the Scottish mainland. From the west the ocean, whipped by a stiff breeze, drove tiny white horses on to long sandy shores. The Atlantic rollers were just visible beneath my wings.

But my wings were manufactured by Saab. Nose pressed to the window, I was aboard a 30-seater twin-prop passenger plane heading from Glasgow airport to the landing strip on the island of Islay. I would land there at ten in the morning on Monday, 13 October.

About 30,000 barnacle geese had landed just ahead of me this month. They had come from Greenland; I had come from Derby. My small voyage of discovery was the last of my adventures as the presenter of a five-part scries for BBC Radio Four on migrating species called Moving On. My programme about eels has already been broadcast, as has my account of a feathered burrow-dweller and transcontinental aviator, the Manx shearwater. The third and the fourth programmes, about migrating butterflies and basking sharks, will be broadcast at 2.45 p.m. over the coming Sundays.

Barnacle geese will be my fifth and final theme. Islay is winter home to about two thirds of the planet's entire population of Greenland-based geese (a separate tribe come from Siberia, wintering on the east coast of Scotland). This distinguishes them from most of Britain's other migrating species. Sensible animal tourists flee our winter, departing for sunnier climes. Islay's barnacle geese actually choose to come here in winter - for whatever the horrors of the Scottish climate, they are less horrific than winter in Greenland. Making his escape from his rocky nest in the subarctic ice (and flying en famille with his mate and the latest offspring), the bird finds in the Hebrides just about the first available landfall in the warm Gulf Stream.

The other is Iceland, which the geese use as a sort of pit stop en route, extending their break there whenever Iceland enjoys a warm September. The journey is more than 1,000 miles, and we have only patchy knowledge of how the birds navigate and how high they fly.

The barnacle goose cats grass and little else. Having an inefficient digestive system, it eats a lot and almost continuously, choosing the tender tips of new grass growth. This puts the bird in direct competition with sheep and cattle, and does not endear barnacles (as they are called locally) to the Islay farming community. 'They've flown 1,000 miles from Greenland,' one farmer told me. 'And it's only a few miles further over the water to Kintyre. There's lots of grass there. You'd think they could fly on for one last hop. Gut the buggers won't go.'

In fact, farmers on Islay have reached a sort of grumpy truce with the geese, mediated by ornithologists. Financial compensation for lost grass provides for reseeding, and now forms part of the backbone of the rural economy. Payments to farms of between L5,000 and L10,000 a year are not uncommon. A generation of crofters and farmers born to the assumption that their working lives would be spent raising mammals have now been told that their role is to keep out of the way of birds.

But still the geese have to be removed from newly seeded land. …

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