Gaze out across the Bridgend Flats, Islay, in the direction of the sea, between October and April, and you will witness what looks like an avian Dunkirk. Hundreds of barnacle geese, soldier-smart in their distinctive black and white uniforms, stand to attention on a series of salt-marsh ridges – or jetties – scanning the horizon as if for ships, while others swoop and soar like mini-Spitfires in the skies above.
It’s a rousing sight; and a fitting one. The geese on Islay have long been at the centre of conflict. Loved by bird-watchers, dreaded by farmers whose fields they ravage, they are used to being both sheltered and shooed.
This conflict has ebbed and flowed over the years: in 1993, the artist George Wyllie created an 18ft paper bird named Truce Goose after the Battle of Duich Moss, a favoured roosting place for the rarer white-fronted geese, ended with the owners, Laggan estate, promising to halt their peat-cutting, and the site being declared a National Nature Reserve. Unfortunately Wyllie gave instructions for his art work to be destroyed at the end of the summer; the detente was similarly shortlived.
That’s not to say islanders are immune to the spell cast by the geese. The internal compass and genetic memory that helps the birds navigate the 1,500-mile journey from Greenland via Iceland, returning in their tens of thousands year after year to the same patch of land, is a source of almost universal awe.
Always a spectacle, the geese have a myriad different ways of captivating their audience. Roosting on wetlands in the sun, they are shimmering pebbles; in gloomy skies, bats from a Transylvanian castle. Circling a tumbledown cottage in a landscape of ochre and green, they are a painting by Pissarro; and when they rise up in their thousands, swirling and shifting in ever-changing patterns, it’s like looking down the barrel of some cosmic kaleidoscope.
Migrating in V-shaped formations – each goose slightly higher than the one behind so as to reduce wind resistance; each one taking its turn at the front – they are a powerful metaphor for pulling together in turbulent times. “The weather grows darker and brisker every day and the wind is fierce and unrelenting,” says Karine Polwart in a song inspired by the arrival of the pink-footed geese to Fala Moor in the Lammermuir Hills. “We are each other’s wind resistance; a human skein.”
Yet all their majesty and mysticism has not saved the geese from the marksmen. With figures on Islay now over the 50,000 mark, and the annual compensation paid out to farmers every year edging towards £1 million, the geese are being culled in their thousands. Throughout the winter, three sharp-shooters, employed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), can be seen – or more often not seen – commando-crawling through the fields, stalking the barnacles.
The cull is not designed to rid Islay of the birds, which are protected under EU directives and central to the island’s identity.
Instead, the Islay Sustainable Goose Management Strategy strives to strike a balance between the need to sustain a viable population and the need to sustain the agriculture which is worth £10m-£11m a year to the local economy.
As Andrew Kent, SNH operations manager for Islay, Jura and Colonsay, points out, the two are in any case bound together. It is improvements in farming – increased fertiliser and lusher fields along with their protected status – that has driven the rise in numbers; were the agriculture to dwindle, so too would the geese. Thus, SNH’s mission is to come up with the magic formula: the precise number that can be shot to reduce the burden on farmers, by protecting recently reseeded fields, without jeopardising the long-term future of the species.
In order to do so, it holds a series of counts over the winter. On these days, sharp-eyed monitors go out in pairs and calculate how many there are of each species – the migratory barnacles and white-fronted geese and the native greylags – in which fields.
The counts reveal how many geese have made the trip this year and where they are settling. This information is then used to help calculate the amount of compensation due to individual farmers and the “bag limit”: the total number that may be killed over the season. Last year it was 3,200; this year it is expected to be around 2,800.
The rules under which the marksmen operate are tight; they can only shoot in designated fields and only if they are sure no white-fronted geese are present. And the barnacles are canny. The reason they are being culled at all is that the many devices used to scare them don’t work. The kites, the streamers on bamboo canes, the giant inflatable men that pop up like jack-in-the-boxes quickly lose their power as the geese became habituated. Some people even believe the barnacle geese have started to infiltrate the white-fronted flocks, using them as goose shields, like terrorists embedding themselves in the civilian population.
Despite the marksmen’s precautions, the cull remains controversial. Earlier this month, two goose experts, Dr Steve Percival and Dr Eric Bignal, claimed hundreds of birds were being injured and left to die – something SNH disputes – and that the lead shot used could be polluting Islay’s soil and water. Some of the visitors who extend Islay’s tourists season from six to ten months also find the cull distasteful.
Though not himself a birdwatcher, Jack Fleming, RSPB Scotland’s area reserves manager, who is based at the island’s Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve, says the noise of the geese arriving still lifts the hairs on the back of his neck. “There is something really wild about this bird that breeds so far away and chooses to come to Islay every year.”
Fleming accepts the need to find some accommodation with farmers, but questions the science behind the strategy. “There is no evidence killing these birds will reduce overall numbers,” he says. “For a start only 25 per cent of the population breed in any given year. In theory, shooting a proportion of the geese could mean the remaining ones leave in better physical condition because they have had more to eat or it could mean there’s greater access to the best nesting sites in Greenland. We just don’t know. But the fundamental principle of killing a protected species within a protected area seems flawed to me.”
Of the two species of geese that migrate from Greenland to Islay, the barnacle has the better backstory. Its black and white markings are almost identical to those of goose barnacles – deep sea barnacles swept on to the beach after storms. And so a myth developed: barnacle geese were born of driftwood and were not flesh. Investing in this myth allowed Catholics to eat them during Lent when meat was prohibited; and so it persisted.
During the 1950s, a few thousand barnacle geese made their way to Islay every year. They were regarded as a pest by the farmers through whose sodden fields they yomped; but back then, those farmers could shoot them at will so the problem was kept at bay. In the 1970s, however, the numbers began to decline, and in 1981, both the barnacles and the white-fronted geese became protected species, so the shooting had to stop. That, along with the increase in good, fertile farmland, aided by grants for drainage schemes, meant barnacle numbers soared.
The white-fronted geese have not fared so well. Predatory US geese have threatened their nesting sites in Greenland so their numbers are in decline, with only around 6,000-7,000 making the journey to Islay every year.
Altogether, goose numbers peaked at more than 50,000 in 2006 and have now fallen back to around 47,000. That looks and sounds like a lot, especially on an island of just 250 square miles. At the height of the season, the geese outnumber the 3,000 islanders 15 to one. Their cacophony of honking is competition for the sound of the distillery lorries that pound Islay’s roads.
Yet given the geese on Islay represent 70 per cent of the world’s barnacle population and 40 per cent of the white-fronted population, it’s a small number in global terms; in addition goose experts worry climate change will drive numbers down.
For a while, post-2000, SNH’s strategy involved a combination of scaring and the Scottish Government compensation scheme, with tiny numbers shot in “lethal scaring”. But – unlike in other parts of Scotland – Islay farmers only receive 50 per cent of the cost of impact, leaving them resentful. As the numbers of geese continued to rise, the cost of the compensation scheme began to look prohibitive, and so the new strategy was introduced. Under the plan, SNH will keep shooting 2,000-3,000 birds a year until 2024 by which time – the theory goes – the damage to crops will have dropped by 25 to 35 per cent, and the compensation payouts lowered by the same proportion. “We are just trying to achieve a balance between the conservation needs of the geese and the damage they do,” says Kent.
One morning in mid-October, Robert Epps is sitting in a run-down caravan – the HQ of Ardnave, the beef farm his family has run for more than 60 years. Ardnave runs right down to the sea; Epps’ cattle often amble along the beach as waves crash against the rocks.
Once upon a time, his family also ran the dairy farm next door, but in 1983, the RSPB bought it over to create the Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve, where David Wood is site manager. The idea behind the reserve was that by creating the ideal habitat, the geese might be lured away from the farmers’ fields, but as numbers rose it proved impossible to contain them; instead they spread out across Islay.
Running the farm next door to the reserve, Epps suffers more than most from the invasion from the north-east. “Our biggest problem is the amount they eat, but also the damage they to do the grass and the soil under it,” he says. “You get this puddling effect when the fields are wet. It’s the impact of so many feet on grass. If they graze on young reseeded grass that’s not been in a long time, they tug it, and because the root system is not well established, they actually pull it out.
“It’s expensive to reseed a field, very expensive, and then you will go to it the next year and it will be predominantly weeds. So it’s not just having a bad effect on us, it’s having a bad effect on the geese because they are destroying their own habitat.” Add to that the fact Epps cannot put down fertiliser until the geese depart in April, so the silage is cut a month late, and the toll on his business is high.
Under the SNH strategy, Epps could shoot a limited number of birds himself, but he doesn’t. Few of the farmers do, relying instead on the marksmen. It’s hard enough trying to run the farm with an ever decreasing number of workers, he explains, without stalking geese all day; and besides he doesn’t like killing things.
Last year, Epps initially refused to sign up to the scheme in protest against a drop of £17,500 in payouts caused by a claim that he was receiving duplicate sums for the same thing. “I told them, ‘It’s fine. I am just going to shoot the hell out of the birds’. But it was an idle threat because, as I said, I don’t like shooting them.” And, of course, it would be against the law. “SNH would say, ‘Look, Robert, you can’t be shooting these birds, they are protected birds and you are not in the scheme’. I am not financially strong enough to take them on. Also, because I live next to Gruinart, I could never shoot enough to make a difference. As many as I would shoot, more would come and take their place.”
A few weeks after visiting Epps, I join Andrew Kent and Jean Reid on the second count of the year. It was seeing an advert for goose counters circulating on Twitter earlier in the year that first piqued my interest. How was it possible, I wondered, to make an accurate calculation of thousands of birds that kept shifting? Would it involve state-of-the art technology?
As soon as we climb into the 4x4, however, armed with a field map, a list of various terrains, a pair of binoculars and a tally counter, I realise the operation is about as low-tech as you can get.
The count I am on is a farm count used to calculate the compensation due to individual farmers, as opposed to one of the two international counts used to collate statistics of global populations.
The rain is banging off the windows as we set off on a route around Loch Gorm; every now and again Reid, a former teacher, jumps out to heave open another farm gate and we go off-road bouncing around on the rough terrain.
It is difficult for me to distinguish anything from this distance, but Reid can spot geese even where they have disguised themselves as reeds or fence posts; she can see them when only the very tops of their heads are showing above the tops of ridges. When she does, she’ll shout “stop”. Out will come the binoculars and the tally counter and for a while the only sounds will be honking and clicking until she announces “1,413 barnacles and 432 white-fronts” with an awe-inspiring confidence.
Reid got involved in the goose counts when she retired. “You can’t really live on Islay and not be interested in the bird life,” she says. At 71, she is still fit, but admits yesterday’s count – which took a full day – left her exhausted. “I already knew how to tell the difference between the species,” she says. “But sometimes it is still quite difficult. It depends on the light. The barnacles are pretty distinct, but the greylags and the white-fronts can be difficult to tell apart.”
The geese that are shot have their sex, weight and age recorded. One thing that rankles with everyone I speak to is that it’s against the law to offer any wild goose meat for sale in Scotland, so many end up in landfill.
“We try to give away as many as possible, but not everyone knows how to pluck them these days,” says Kent. “The marksmen give some to the Filipinos who come in on the barley boats.” So what do they taste like? “It’s a darker, redder meat with a different flavour to greylag,” he says. “I have had it in burgers and it is nice.” Reid cautions: “It can be quite tough. You have to cook it slowly.”
Later the three marksmen take me out to demonstrate the care they take on the job. Recent photos of an American television presenter posing triumphantly with a feral goat she hunted on the island caused a social media stushie; so all of them want to remain anonymous. But two of them are deerstalkers and the third is an international clay pigeon shooter.
In the past, rumours have circulated about them shooting from their vehicles; perhaps as a result, they now receive extra training by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
“The first couple of weeks there’s a lot of paperwork involved; every farm has their own first and second year reseeded areas so we have to check all the maps are correct,” one of the marksmen says. “See all these geese here? We can’t shoot at them because they are not in one of the reseeded fields – even though they are the exact same geese that will later feed on them.”
We park up in front of a field that runs down to the sea so they can explain all the factors they need to consider. “If this was a field we could shoot on, the first thing we would do is to make sure there are only barnacle geese present. If there were white-fronted geese or lapwings or curlews, we would just move on. Then we would decide which gun to use.”
Rifle shots are more precise, but travel a great distance and are quite capable of passing through a goose and hitting a sheep hidden in the grass. Shotguns can take out more than one bird at a time, but there is a greater risk of others being injured in the process.
“In this case, we could probably use a rifle in the centre of the field, but at the edges, no, because there is no backstop. Once we had made that decision, we would pick a route. We would probably come along the shoreline, crawl in and take a few out.
“We have to get within about 30 yards – and often they will fly off before we get close enough. It is not unusual for us to spend an hour in a field and not take a shot.”
Another marksman adds: “I always say goose-stalking is like deer-stalking in miniature. The targets are smaller, the undulations are smaller and we spend a lot more time with our faces in the mud.”
This year the shooters have also been trialling lasers, which they shine at the feet of the geese to startle them. If it is proven to work – and the signs are looking promising – they will be ideal for fields near built-up areas.
As for the scientists’ claims they are leaving hundreds of birds maimed – the marksmen have no truck with them. SNH factors in a 10 per cent crippling loss, but says the real figure is much lower. Others put it at closer to 20 per cent.
The marksmen, however, insist if a bird is maimed, they go back and find it and put it out of its misery. “Any birds that are injured, we get them, simple as that. At the end of the day we have our own number to reach so it wouldn’t be in our interest to leave injured and maimed birds lying around the island. One, it is unprofessional, and two, it’s unnecessary suffering for an animal.”
From early autumn, then, the geese on Islay dominate the already bird-rich landscape; they are as reliable a marker of the changing seasons as the purpling of the heather or the reddening of the rowan berries. They dominate conversations too. People marvel or they mutter, according to their perspective. But the need to find a compromise between the geese and the farmers is recognised, even if there is no consensus on the solution.
At 6am on the day of the count, the photographer and I tuck ourselves into one of the hides at Loch Gruinart and wait, shivering, for the dawn. The last time I visited, the weather was glorious and the wetlands looked like a watering hole in the Serengeti, with a dozen or so species – teals, lapwings, ravens, whooper swans and, of course, geese – gathering en masse in the fading autumn light.
Today, there is no sunrise. When the light finally arrives it comes suddenly, turning the sky a snowy-white. Stark geese silhouettes forge great, gothic loops; shadow puppets moving behind a translucent screen. It is beyond beautiful.
But not everyone sees things in the same way. “Oh yes, it can be a great sight when the geese fly in,” says Robert Epps. “But it’s an even better sight when they head off back to Greenland.”