A Wild Goose Chase


Damage to the malting barley crop, being grown for Bruichladdich, by a rapidly expanding population of wild Greylag geese is a big problem for Islay’s farmers. A team led by Professor Nils Bunnefeld of Stirling University is attempting to conduct research into the issue by catching a small sample group and attaching transponders to try and plot the bird’s movements and find out where they come from and go to.

However, this is not proving easy. Catching a wild goose is in reality less of a chase, more of a stakeout.

This is how to do it in theory:

  1. choose a good location, based on the popularity of a particular field with the species that interest you;
  2. bait it, with some attractive grain such as the malting barley that is waste from the Bruichladdich millhouse;
  3. set your net, so it will fire with the wind behind it and project at 30 degrees;
  4. wait for a moment when there are a good number of geese in your area but not endangered by being in direct line of fire of the steel projectiles that drag out the 25kg, 25m x 12.5m net;
  5. charge the e-matches that generate the 300v spark to ignite the four cannons, each loaded with 20g of “black powder; almost like four shotguns”;
  6. and fire!

In practise, the first attempt at catching the seven Greylags that are needed for researchers Tom Mason and Jeremy Cusack of Stirling University’s pilot study, which aims to fit GPS trackers to the birds, was less straightforward.

Last week, a field on the western edge of Islay at Rockside farm was chosen, where more than twenty Greylags had been reliably sighted for the previous five or six days. Staff from the nearby RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart suggested that the researchers, “May well get Greylags moving through too, coming off the coast.”

Part of the reason that Tom and Jeremy want to track the Greylags is that very little is known about their movements, which are especially eratic at this time of year, when huge migrant populations of other goose species are arriving on Islay.

They are being assisted by Dr Steve Percival, an ecologist who has been researching Barnacle geese on Islay since conducting his PHD here in the 1970s who says: “I think one of the major problems we’ve got with catching Greylags here is that there’s only a few birds because most of them have been scared off by shooting. And those left are just nervously hopping around all over the place”.

As so many Islay farmers are now invested in growing barley destined for distilling, the ultimate success of the research concerns us here at Bruichladdich. More about our latest Islay Barley release and the farms behind it here.

On the fourth day of observations, when the nearest the geese had come to the de-marcated area was a distance of 100m, despite the researchers’ attempts to, “Scare them over here,” they accepted temporary defeat and de-rigged the net. As Steve reflected: “We’re in an enormous stubble field. The proportion that we’re covering with this net is tiny. So, yeah, it’s a probability game really! You could use something like decoys – or stuffed birds might bring them in onto the bait. Or just do it for longer, put the bait out longer so they’ve got longer to find it. Then once they find it, then you’ve got them.”

Jeremy explained how you only really get one chance to fire the net, “The geese remember, definitely. So for example if a few came on Tuesday and we fired it, they would probably not come back for a few days which is why you need to choose your moment carefully.”

Down at the Gruinart Reserve, Steve did catch 10 Barnacle geese during the same period, but, “We had forty to fifty birds in our catching area, but of those, half were in the left hand side of the net. And when the net fired up it caught a strong gust of wind, and it just carried it enough to take it away from the main concentration of birds, unfortunately.”

Current score Geese 1, Researchers 0. To be continued…

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