A short history of geese in Ireland

My boat is moored in Ballinasloe, on the River Suck, and about a week ago I was sitting on deck, soaking up the spring sunshine, when a wild and beautiful sound made me look up into the sky.

A small skein of wild geese was flying in a north-westerly direction and honking.

‘Honking’ is a quite inadequate word to describe the sonorous, musical calls that geese use to communicate with each other in flight.

Calls that are also useful when identifying the species of goose. These were Greenland white-fronts.

‘Skein’ is a good word. When applied to birds it should only be used of wildfowl — normally geese, but swans or ducks are possible — when they’re in flight in a vee formation.

‘Skein’ is also used to describe a length of wool, or other yarn, that’s roughly coiled and knotted. I don’t understand the connection between the two main uses of the word.

The skein flying over Ballinasloe the other day was quite small, maybe a dozen to 15 birds, and they were migrating.

They were flying north-westerly because that’s the direction of their breeding grounds, roughly midway along the west coast of Greenland.

White-fronted geese breed all around the Arctic, in tundra regions of Europe, Siberia and Alaska. But the population that breeds on the west coast of Greenland is distinct: the birds are larger and have yellower beaks, and they’re regarded as a separate subspecies.

In fact, there is a growing feeling that they should be classified as a full species.

Just over half of the entire population spends the winter in Ireland. The remainder go to western Scotland and a few to Wales and England.

Their long-return migration to the Arctic, at this time of year, has been tracked by satellite transmitters attached to the birds.

They take a break, usually about a fortnight, in western Iceland, before the last leg over the Greenland ice-cap to Disko Bay.

We know from 19th and early 20th century accounts that they were once widespread in Ireland in winter, in practically every county.

They mainly lived in bogs, which, apart from providing food, in the form of sedges and bog grasses, were protection.

A sentinel goose, with sharp eyes on top of a long neck, could spot predators a long way off in open bogland.

The main predators were human. Wild geese were extensively hunted in those days. But hunting wasn’t the main reason they left their traditional wintering grounds.

It was loss of their bog habitat, as a result of drainage and industrialised peat production. Most of them retreated to the reclaimed salt marshes of the Wexford Slobs.

But small flocks still spend the winter on the flooded callows of the Shannon, and its tributary, the Suck.

MORE DICK WARNER: The fascinating history of the humble Eucalyptus


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