IT IS better known for attracting the rare corncrake to its shores, but now a record-breaking number of barnacle geese have been recorded on the isle of Tiree.
John Bowler, Royal Society For The Protection of Birds (RSPB) officer for the island, recorded 4,567 in his latest count last month – compared to just 700 two decades ago.
He said: “There are count records back to the 1970s, and less complete records back to the 1950s, and this is the highest number counted that I know of since the records began. I don’t know the reason, but it could be that there is a lot more protracted scaring going on in Islay.
“Barnacle geese have always been here, but, in 1990, the population was only 500 to 700 and there were only two or three places where they used to be – whereas now they are found in a lot more places around the island.”
Barnacle geese numbers have been increasing gradually on Tiree over recent years. Count figures show that there were 1,456 on Tiree in 1996, then the numbers fluctuated for a few years before going back up again to 2,132 in 2001 and 3,474 in 2005. There was a count of 4,190 in 2010, 4,295 in 2011 and 4,295 again in March last year.
The geese arrive from Greenland to winter on Tiree when grass in their homeland is frozen. They stay until April before journeying back to Greenland, via Iceland.
Mr Bowler said: “We could get an even bigger count of them before they leave in April. They are quite a spectacular sight because they tend to feed in really big flocks, you can get 1,500 to 2,000 together. I do a count once a month in the winter, starting at the east end of the island. I check every field.”
While barnacle geese numbers are increasing, the number of Greenland white-fronted geese wintering on Tiree is falling.
A total of 666 Greenland whitefronted geese were recorded on the island last month compared to 948 counted in March last year. Mr Bowler said: “There used to be over 1,000 recorded, in 2004 we counted 1,133 on Tiree, but they are suffering from poor breeding success, that has been happening for a number of years for the whitefronted geese and it’s not clear why it’s happening.”
He said all the geese need somewhere a bit warmer than their homeland and added: “They can’t survive in Greenland because in the winter it freezes up and there is no food available. They head for western coastal districts where they don’t get frost, like the wetter, warmer climates of Scotland and Ireland.”
A Scottish Natural Heritage spokesman said bird populations could vary quite a lot from year to year depending on weather and other factors and added: “Barnacle geese populations have been increasing on Islay and Tiree over the past few decades, but year to year, populations can change by as much as 10 to 15 per cent, depending on breeding success in Greenland, among other factors.”
Tiree’s February goose count also included 2,640 greylags, two pinkfeet, two Canada geese, 106 whooper swans, 2,235 lapwings as well as 2,780 golden plover.