The RSPB is this week taking the Scottish Executive to the Scottish High Court, forcing a judicial review of the decision to allow geese to be shot in a Special Protection Area, a European Union-designated conservation zone.
Islay is one of only two places in the United Kingdom where the geese can be seen in any numbers. Each winter, about 31,000 barnacle geese, 72 per cent of the global population, gather on the island for the winter, cropping the grass on its bleak, windswept expanses.
Although the two farmers have been licensed to kill only a few geese, the RSPB fears that the noise could be devastating. "It is not just the shooting of 50 birds of a protected species that is at issue," says Paul Walton of RSPB Scotland. "It is the disturbance that this would cause to the main flocks at these important feeding and roosting sites."
Two farmers on Islay convinced ministers last year that the geese were doing serious damage and that efforts to scare them away had failed. Lord Sewel, a Scottish Officer minister, issuing the licences in November, said: "Scientists advise that such limited shooting will not have a significant effect on the growing population. But I am conscious of our international obligations to protect barnacle geese populations, and the effect of licensing on the geese and the farms will be carefully monitored."
The birds are protected under the EU Birds Directive, but exceptions are allowed if it can be shown that the species is causing serious damage to agricultural crops and "where there is no other satisfactory solution". The RSPB argues that in this case the satisfactory alternative is payments to farmers in compensation, as in other conservation areas.
The case brings to a head tension among the organisations protecting wild geese in Scotland. The RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust were thrown off the National Goose Forum (formerly chaired by the Scottish Office), in December by Lord Sewel for an alleged breach of confidentiality, leaving only land-owning and sporting interests represented on it.