Are we in the middle of a wild goose chase?

Greylag geese on the grass.

Greylag geese on the grass.

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KEEPING one step ahead of the goose is the only way to deal with them, says Uist’s Goose Co-ordinator who believes scaring tactics are working in the Southern Isles.

This comes as Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil calls for tougher measures and says scaring just moves the birds from one field to another on a ‘wild goose chase’ and doesn’t do anything about increasing numbers.

Crofters in Lewis and Harris say the numbers coming north are a growing problem and are not only affecting their crops but also causing a hazard in local playparks and football pitches.

The Uist Goose Management Scheme commenced for 2011 last week, a project which is funded and coordinated by the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. A partnership between SNH, RSPB, the Comhairle and the Scottish Crofting Federation and co-funded by EU LIFE+ money. It is now in its second year and Co-ordinator Rory MacGillivray believes there were results in the first year.

“Overall crop yield and quality was up and on the goose count, the numbers were slightly down on previous year’s counts,” he said.

“Feedback from the crofters has been very good, in response to the successful crop protection many crofters have increased their cropping areas, agreed to ‘late cut’ dates etc. Many have agreed to crop the more traditional way.”

He is aware that crofter co-operation is very much dependent on the scheme showing results, but thinks they are making inroads.

“If the crop protection hadn’t been successful, these agreements simply would not/could not have happened. This for us is the mark of how well the first year’s programme has gone. Crofter confidence has increased.”

The scarers working in Uist are experienced in the movement of the geese and Rory says any disruption to their natural pattern of movement can make it more difficult to control them.

This makes him wary of hailing more gun licences as the answer to the problem.

“More licences would normally suggest more crop protection, more geese shot, but in my personal view, only in theory. The goose is a wily bird, the saying ‘wild goose chase’ wasn’t just picked at random.”

He explains that the birds adapt quickly to scaring methods and the answer seems to be to rotate the use of different methods and allow them to maintain their natural movements.

“Tides, moon phases, weather, wind direction etc all bring changes to its patterns. Knowing through this experience has allowed the scarers to be in most cases a step ahead of the goose and plug gaps rather than be a step behind and try to recover situations.”

He added: “When we have a moon the goose patterns and flight times change completely. If this programme becomes less coordinated and too much pressure is put on to the goose too quickly, it will simply change its patterns and the scarers knowledge and experience become less valuable.

“To protect the crop it is important that we keep the goose as close as we can to its normal patterns, that way we are at our most effective as scarers, as we have a good idea what it is about to do and can therefore stay ahead, lose that and lose our advantage.”

Despite these positive developments in the Uists, crofters still maintain that not enough is being done to protect their crops and want pressure to be put on SNH to implement further measures.

The Gazette’s latest website poll found that nearly 80 per cent of respondents felt more should be done to control geese populations.

And Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, a crofter himself who has first hand experience of the nusiance bird, is not convinced that scaring geese is enough.

He said: “The answer is not chasing them from one field to the next but it is about having a sustainable answer and doing something about the numbers.”

The Environment Minister when he visited Lewis last month said he had confidence in the existing measures being used to control the geese numbers.

However Mr MacNeil is not the only politician calling for this to be looked at again.

Labour’s Rhoda Grant, MSP for Highlands and Islands said: “I understand that the numbers of greylag geese resident on the Western Isles has tripled in the last 20 years causing continued hardship for the crofter who is trying to feed stock. No-one wants to see the geese wiped out, but there has to be a balance and they need to be controlled and managed.”

And now crofters in Lewis and Harris, traditionally suffering less from geese impact than the Southern Isles, are also feeling the effects.

A spokesperson for a new organisation Croitearan nan Eilean (Crofters of the Isles), said scaring methods were failing and that Scottish Ministers must start acting on the issue.

“There has been enough ‘shilly-shallying’ by ministers on this issue,” he said. “It is not as if it hasn’t been brought to their attention on numerous occasions. It is time for action. There is an excessive and unacceptable number of geese grazing and fouling not only crofts and common grazings but football pitches and other play areas as well. It does not seem right that children should have to suffer this contamination of their playing areas.”

He added that the Lewis and Harris Goose Management Group was meeting at the end of this month to discuss the issue.

Croitearan nan Eilean is also organising a conference on Friday September 30 in the Cabarfeidh Hotel. This will feature a number of distinguished speakers who will be announced in due course. Anyone wishing any further information on this can contact HQ@croiteran.com for details.