An early departure for geese?

ON one of the few calm days we’ve had recently, I was out contemplating my sodden vegetable garden and when I’d be able to prepare the beds for planting. I heard an unmistakable sound. The call of wild geese, which is like a distant pack of hounds in the sky.

An early departure for geese?

I looked up and there, at a considerable height, was the skein of geese. The Northern Irish ornithologist, Anthony McGeehan, describes this sight in his book, Birds Through Irish Eyes, as “lofty legions embroidering the sky like columns of marching ants”. They were too high up for me to identify the species of goose, though I’m pretty sure from the sound that they were white-fronted. I was surprised to see them so early in the year, as they don’t take to the sky, to return to their Arctic breeding grounds, until April. In the late 1990s, their return migration was tracked using satellite transmitters. The pattern was departure from the Wexford slobs on April 7, a short stopover in north Donegal, then arrival in western Iceland on April 20. They remain there for a fortnight, before the flight over the Greenland ice-cap to Disko Bay, which they reach on May 10. They disperse from there to their breeding grounds, 70 degrees north on the west coast of Greenland, about a week later.

White-fronted geese also breed across the tundra of northern Europe, Siberia and Alaska. But in 1948, Peter Scott, the famous English wildfowl expert, noted that the Greenland population was different, particularly in the shape and colour of the beak. Some experts think they should be regarded as a species, the Greenland white fronted goose, and not just as a subspecies. The entire population winters in Ireland and western Scotland (they have also been recorded in Wales), with the bulk of the Irish birds concentrated in the Wexford slobs.

There are a few other populations scattered about the country, notably along the Shannon callows, where they haven’t been short of wetland this winter, and in Killarney National Park. The Wexford slobs are polders, land reclaimed from the sea, and have existed for less than two centuries. Before that, these geese spent the winter on the great raised bogs of the Midlands. Sixty or seventy years ago, the destruction of these bogs, by Bord na Mona, forced them to look elsewhere. The artificially fertilised grasslands and cereal fields of the slobs are a very different environment to a raised bog and offer a very different diet to these grazing birds. But they have one thing in common — huge, hedge-free expanses where a paranoid goose can spot a predator from a great distance away.

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