Over the past few decades there has been significant increase in numbers of geese visiting and living in the Orkney Islands. This change in behaviour has led to the islands becoming a magnet for goose shooters from all over the world. The slands changed from an area where it was unusual to see a goose, to an environment which is now plagued with them. This article will review some of the reasons for these changes in goose behaviour.
Back in 1985 there were no resident or migratory geese counted on the island. Over the following two and a half decades the number of geese counted has exploded. These counts include both geese that migrate to and from the island and those that have now become resident there.
There are a number of views as to why the geese have started to visit and also become resident in Orkney. In the past, geese migrated from Iceland past Orkney and the northern islands and travelled further south to the Scottish mainland. Some people suggest that global warming may have caused geese to stop travelling so far south. If there is no need to fly an extra few hundred miles for food, why bother? Â However, others believe that the climate has not altered sufficiently to cause this change, and that global warming may be only one of a number of factors that have contributed to this change is goose behaviour.
Another suggestion is that the geese have become disturbed by the very high shooting pressure on the Scottish mainland, and have found themselves a new environment where the shooting pressure is lower. Many wildfowlers feel that this is partially true, although it has been observed in past years that despite shooting pressure geese will carry on using certain areas if there is enough food and good roosting grounds to entice them there, such as at Loch Leven and many other shooting grounds through the UK.
Geese are clearly attracted to Orkney because of its environment. There is plenty of food, with a lot of barley available early in the season, and as the season progresses there is ample grass for grazing. Another important attraction is the multitude of suitable and undisturbed roosts; Orkney abounds with hidden lochs, bays and uninhabited islands. Once the geese started visiting Orkney they discovered a perfect environment and some birds became resident.
This increased resident population found that Orkney also provides excellent breeding grounds which allow a high percentage of chicks to survive. The islands have undisturbed heather and bog areas free from predators such as foxes, stoats, mink or weasel, thus providing an ideal breeding habitat. These resident geese then attract other geese that had been migrating south, calling them in to the islands.
In the past few years the peak count seems to have reached a plateau. This may be as a result of shooting, or possibly because the goose population has reached the islandsâ€™ carrying capacity; there are only a certain number of geese that can be sustained by Orkneyâ€™s food. Others feel that there is still plenty of food available and suggest that the counts are inaccurate and that numbers may actually still be increasing. It is difficult to get an accurate account of geese numbers as unlike for example Montrose Basin or Loch Leven, Orkney has many small roosts rather than a couple of large ones, making it very hard to produce reliable and accurate counts. It is also possible that other birds from the Icelandic greylag population have an equally strong attraction to other areas and these migratory habits will remain unchanged.
Although total Greylag numbers seem to have reached a plateau, the proportion of resident birds within the total is increasing as more birds choose to stay on the islands, and it is these resident geese that are causing a big problem for landowners. The resident number of Greylag in the summer of 2011 was around 12,500, whilst in 2012 it was estimated at around 22,500. These residents graze the grass all year around and they will feed on the crops from drilling right through to harvest. This level of agricultural damage and subsequent financial loss is unsustainable and resulted in a cull last August and September. The cull focussed on resident geese and took place before the migrants arrived, but many considered it was not very successful. A further cull is planned for this coming August, but unless more resources and expertise are made available, many locals feel that it will again be unsuccessful.
Interestingly, numbers of migratory Pinkfoot geese are also increasing both early and late in the season, but they do not become resident as the islands do not meet their breeding habitat requirements.
Overall the outlook for goose numbers over the next decade is very positive for the shooting community, although local farmers may not share our optimism! Many believe that future culls are unlikely to be effective and that Greylag geese in Orkney will remain a threat to local agriculture as the resident population increases further and migratory geese continue to visit Orkney. Geese numbers will almost certainly increase and Orkney will remain a Mecca for goose shooting for at least the next decade. Orkney Shooting Holidays operates with three full time guides and whilst last season we shot over 3,000 geese, we anticipate an even greater bag next season.
Proprietor, Orkney Shooting Holidays