IF you mention ‘geese’ at this time of year, many people’s thoughts turn to farmed ones (hopefully free range and organic – kinder, tastier and healthier) as an alternative to turkeys.
But of course there are also truly wild geese which come to our shores in winter, from their breeding grounds in the High Arctic.
A very special one, which breeds further north than any other species, is the Brent goose, a small species with black head, neck and chest, and small crescentic white marks on the side of the neck. On the mudflats of the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve we are host to the pale-bellied subspecies which flies all the way from Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, travelling in family groups.
Some of this population also winters in Denmark, but increased disturbance there from shooting and other human activity means that virtually the whole of the world population – probably less than 4,000 – now depends on this internationally important reserve on the Northumberland coast. Here they feed on the sea grasses which grow on the nutrient-rich mud. Ingestion of salt is not an issue because, having evolved as a marine goose, they have developed large salt glands. They are not on the wildfowlers’ list of target species but they do face problems of disturbance, ingestion of shot-gun pellets in the mud (causing liver and kidney damage), decrease in zostera grass abundance and quality, and our increasingly unpredictable weather.
Along with a large variety of other wildfowl and waders, the L.N.N.R. is vitally important as a sanctuary for this rare and attractive bird. A good viewing point to see them is the public hide at Fenham-le-Moor, off the A1. The sight and sound of them winging their way across the mudflats against a winter sky is unforgettable, and something we need to value for posterity.