Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.
“The bird that came back”
Latin name – anser anser
The Greylag Goose, the former “Grey Goose” of the Fenlands, is the ancestor of our domestic farmyard goose. Before the widespread drainage of the East Anglian Fens, it had nested as far south as Cambridgeshire, but by the beginning of the 19th century, its breeding range no longer included any area of England. But it continued to breed in Scotland, especially the outer islands in the west.
So, it seemed that the Greylag would pass into history as an English breeding bird. But, just as man was responsible for its extinction in England, so it was that between 1961 and 1970, widespread re-introductions in no fewer than 13 English counties led to the Greylag reclaiming its rightful place as an English breeding species.
Interestingly, Lack’s “The Birds of Cambridgeshire” (1934) makes no mention of the bird in the county, not even as a winter visitor, nor does Tebbutt in his book “The Birds of Huntingdonshire” (1967), which surprised me.
Over the border in Scotland, we find a very different situation, in that just about the entire Icelandic population of 100,000 Greylag winter there, and the last truly wild resident Greylag can be found on the island of South Uist in the Hebrides.
Today, locally some thousands of these geese are resident in our county – many of them living in and around gravel pits such as Paxton Pits. The county wintering population may now exceed 8,000 birds, but this is only an estimate as many local birdwatchers seem not to have much interest in Greylags as a wild bird!
Man and geese have been together historically for over 5,000 years. They are featured on Egyptian wall paintings and used by the Romans as “guard dogs”, and from my research it would seem that the Greylag, along with the Rock Dove, was the first bird to be domesticated.
Annual “goose fairs” were held in many parts of England, the most famous being in Nottingham. Here, thousands of locally bred birds were traded, eventually to be herded along roads to be sold in London. The geese were walked over 100 miles, so to make it possible for them to make this journey, they were walked first of all through hot tar and then through sand, giving the poor birds a kind of boot! Can you imagine meeting a flock of geese being driven down the A1?!
Today, you will meet our resident geese on the A1 fields at this time of year. Look carefully through the flocks, for you may spot a Pinkfoot, Whitefront or Barnacle goose with them. You never can tell, they may be wild birds?
Even without leaving the village, you may hear the distinctive clanging of Greylag geese as they fly over the houses. For many of us, they evoke memories of wonderful trips to Romania, the Netherlands and the Norfolk coastline. These trips may no longer be possible, but just consider the history of these amazing birds – from Egyptian wall paintings to their extinction as an English breeding bird, to the great success that they are today. They are very much part of our local birdwatching experience, and just around our local fields and nature reserve! Enjoy them as part of your winter wildlife walks.
Main reference – “Man and Wildfowl” by Janet Kear (1990) This is a really outstanding book