Members of Islay’s farming community who have taken up the considerable challenge of growing malting barley for us are facing a threat from an unexpected source – the island’s expanding population of wild Greylag geese.
Islay is internationally important for two species of wild geese that breed in Greenland and overwinter here. Both Barnacle geese and the uber-rare Greenland white-fronted geese are protected and compensation is paid to farmers for the considerable damage they do to winter grazing. The level of this compensation is controversial, but there is a broad understanding that a policy ensuring both preservation and management has to be worked out. The impact on the barley crop of these two species is also indirect – although some farmers delay sowing the crop until the big battalions leave.
The Greylags are a different level of threat altogether. They do very significant damage. Greylags are not rare in international terms, but back in 1986 they were quite rare in Britain, restricted to around 150 pairs in the Outer Hebrides. Over the past thirty years however, this population has literally exploded. A proper census has not been published but there are at least 10,000 birds breeding on the Uists alone. The population on Orkney, with residents boosted by overwintering birds from Iceland, rose from essentially zero to 67,540 in December 2006 according to the RSPB.
Greylags were unknown as a breeding species on Islay until 1997 but there was a count of c2,200 in September 2014. Some farmers believe the true population to be much higher. The damage they inflicted in 2015 is considerable with at least one field all but destroyed. While the Greylags are not protected, and indeed some hundreds are shot by farmers every year, no compensation is paid for the damage they do.
Quite why the population has risen to such an extent across Scotland is unclear. Suggestions include lower livestock levels on the islands, lower predation from crows, changing in grass re-seeding practices or an influx of birds from Iceland. Nobody really understands it. The very existence of the malting barley crop on Islay may be contributing to the problem of course.
Quite what needs to be done to mitigate this issue is also unclear. Scaring them inevitably tends to move them from field to field without necessarily preventing the damage. Controlling them through shooting is difficult, time consuming and expensive.
On Orkney there are some entrepreneurial efforts to produce goose prosciutto and goose sausages. Not a bad idea… We have tried them. Very tasty indeed….
The graphic shows the dramatic increase in Greylag goose populations on Orkney as published by The Scottish Government.