Tavish Scott: Farmers goosed by marauding birds
But angry doesn’t begin to describe farmers whose produce is being eaten by hungry birds. A total of 95 per cent of the Icelandic population of greylag geese winter in Scotland. The west coast, Western Isles, Shetland but mostly Orkney are highly desirable to these over wintering birds. The numbers nesting in Scotland are also rising. Orkney’s goose population first exceeded 1,000 birds in the winter of 1986-87. In 2010, the Islands had 80,744 greylags as winter guests.
Geese are attracted by the quality of the forage. The steadily warmer winters mean that splendid grass swards are available on Orkney’s green and pleasant land through most winters – grass intended for beef cattle. Geese have, therefore, cut their annual winter migration by 300-500 kilometres. They land on Orkney’s fields rather than flying south to the Central Belt. The winter population is one thing, but the breeding population is also rising. Geese are becoming an all-year round resident. In Shetland, bird surveys suggest the native population has already reached 700-1,000 breeding pairs. Experts suggest this will double within three years.
Farmers and crofters are fed up. That is especially the case if you grow potatoes, carrots, neeps and cabbage. A field ready for the shop shelf can disappear if set upon by thousands of hungry birds. One farmer seeing his neeps disappear before his eyes, drove his noisiest tractor into the middle of the field and left the engine running. He hoped this might scare the geese away. Far from it. They settled back to contented munching and even snaffled the neeps from underneath the tractor. If one farmer does get the flock to lift, they will land in a neighbour’s field. The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act says that non-lethal attempts to scare the geese must be tried. Conservationists, bird experts and farmers all agree that consistently scaring a greylag goose is nigh on impossible. They simply get used to the noise and ignore it.
So, progress has to be achieving a balance between nature and agriculture. What is the right size of resident breeding population? The Scottish Government has an advisory forum on geese. That gives advice to Scottish Natural Heritage about licenses granted for shooting geese as part of an agreed management plan. Individual farmers can apply to shoot geese where there is serious damage to agricultural crops.
Local farmers are losing commercial quantities of crops for local shops and supermarkets to the marauding goose. So, food miles rise as locally-grown produce is lost and the shops have to source carrots and potatoes from further away. Some have misgivings about shooting geese. But where the resident population is rising rapidly at a growing cost to farmers producing quality livestock from grassland, a balance has to be sought.
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland