Wildlife - Barnacle geese
PUBLISHED: 13:15 19 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:15 19 May 2015
In search of a seasonal visitor to our shores
Ever since I was a small child I have been fascinated by the epic adventures of the Victorian travellers. It seemed like a great time to be alive. There was so much to find out, so many frontiers to explore, the world must have seemed a massive place and so exotic. I suppose it still is, but modern travel has certainly made it a faster and safer planet, even if it might have lost a bit of sparkle.
Many of the early explorers wrote brilliant books and since I was firmly hooked on wildlife, even when young, I tended to seek out those writers that combined both aspects, such as Seton Gordon, Henry Seebohm and John Wolley. One of their abiding passions was to connect up the wildlife dots and one species that fascinated them then, and me today, is the barnacle goose.
Barnacle geese are members of the Branta genus of dark geese, which also includes the brent goose. The other major genus is Anser which includes the pale geese, such as grey lags. Barnacle geese visit the UK only in winter and until the last two centuries had never bred here. They are incredibly faithful to precise areas of winter residence, resulting in the presence of specific populations on the Solway Firth and in the western Hebrides.
Today we know about these populations but in years past it must have been hard to come up with any ideas as to where and how they bred when they literally disappeared in March or April, only to reappear with their young in October.
However, as with most birds like this the naturalists of the past came up with theories of where they bred but basically stuck to the idea that they probably built nests and laid eggs somewhere. They just didn’t know where! It is astonishing to read some of their early ideas of barnacle geese reproduction. They (well, probably not all but quite a lot), believed this bizarre tale so much that it featured in print. Even more oddly, Pope Innocent III in 1215 had to ban specifically the eating of barnacle geese during Lent. The fact that they believed they bred differently from all other birds had allowed a loop-hole to exist of it being permissible to eat them during Lent, although they were still essentially water birds like ducks.
The simple idea they had was that barnacle geese were formed from a gum on driftwood in the sea and as they developed they hung by their beaks from pieces of driftwood just like seaweed. It seems bizarre but in reality there are some large barnacles which, with a vivid imagination, could be thought to resemble small geese in shells. Of course we now know that they breed just like all other birds, although we didn’t know where this took place for a long time.
With a massive desire to discover new lands, facts and to step where no one has before, those early naturalist explorers slowly put the breeding grounds on the map. We know today that there are three distinct breeding populations. One is in Greenland and Iceland (they spend winter in Ireland), a second is in Svalbard (we used to call it Spitsbergen) which winter on the Solway Firth in Dumfries. The last colony is in Novaya Zemlya (Russia) and winters in the Netherlands.
Geese make great eating and consequently we shoot them for the pot. Unfortunately we were a bit too indiscriminate in the past and the Svalbard population had dropped to only 300 birds by the 1940s. The fate of such populations was one of the major incentives for Sir Peter Scott to set up the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Caerlavarock is their reserve on the Solway and by working both here and in Svalbard the population now stands in excess of 30,000, an amazing feat of conservation.
It was to Svalbard I journeyed to join up my own personal dots. I have seen barnacle geese in Derbyshire at Carsington Water and have spent many weekends in Caelavarock watching the huge flocks, which are simply stunning in flight. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be asked to be the on-board photographer for a ship that was travelling around the islands of Svalbard, a land of ice and snow well within the Arctic Circle.
As I spent the next few weeks mesmerised by the scenery and wildlife I was constantly drawn back to my earlier readings of expeditions to Svalbard. The reality of the place never let me down. It is one of the last truly wild and unspoilt parts of our continent. The icing on the cake, however, was photographing a number of barnacle geese with their goslings, my dots were now firmly joined.
Many scientists use large, coloured, plastic rings on birds’ legs to help identify individuals without ever having to catch them again, something that must be incredibly stressful. So while I was photographing the adults I could read the numbers on their green leg rings with ease. I watched SBC, AIZ and TVA escort their young chicks across the arctic tundra. In a few months those chicks would fledge and learn to fly. The parents would have to undergo a moult which means they are flightless for three or four weeks and very vulnerable, particularly to polar bears, their main predator.
If they can make it through this period, which clearly most must do, they then have a 2,000 mile journey to Southern Scotland. In 2011 a wild barnacle goose which was colour ringed was seen at Carsington Water with a number of feral birds (escaped from captivity but now living wild in Derbyshire). It would be a staggering longshot but I dream that one day I will see SBC, AIZ or TVA in the UK. My dots would have been joined in the most amazing way possible.