Should tax payers shell out to foster an increase in birds that are no longer threatened?

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The Independent Online
For most people, a wild goose chase is a futile quest; but on the Hebridean island of Tiree a real pursuit is about to start, as crofters and farmers, driven to distraction by the number of geese feeding on their fields in winter, appoint a Goose Officer to shoot some of the ever-increasing population of greylag geese.

In the first half of this century the greylag was only an occasional visitor to Tiree. Then in the 1970s the birds began to nest on the island in substantial numbers. Now there are between 800 and 1,000 of them resident in summer, and in winter their numbers are swollen to 1,500 or so by migrants from the far north.

Over the past few years they have done such damage to crops that local people formed a management committee, with advisors from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the aim being to maintain a sustainable population by culling some birds in winter, and scaring off some of the others in summer.

To me, this is an entirely sensible plan: the greylag is a quarry species, and there is no reason why a moderate number should not be shot, provided the cull is done expertly. Meanwhile, however, on the larger island of Islay, to the south of Tiree, a crisis is building up simply because no culling can be done.

There the dominant geese are the Greenland Barnacle and the Greenland Whitefront, both fully protected in Scotland. The Islay migrants represent between a half and two-thirds of the world population of the two sub-species, which at one stage were considered to have become endangered.

Both species nest in the Arctic and come south for the winter. Islay attracts them particularly because, lying in the Gulf Stream, it has a moderate winter climate, and the grass (on which the geese mainly feed) continues to grow throughout the year.

Most of the island belongs to four large estates, and in the past the owners or their factors (agents) used to meet every year to decide what the annual cull should be. This kept the goose population to a reasonable level; but since a ban was imposed on shooting, numbers have risen to a barely tolerable pitch.

The highest tally last year was 40,000 birds, but the first full count this winter has already shown a total of 43,000, made up of 29,000 Greenland Barnacle and 13,000 Greenland Whitefront. Scottish Natural Heritage employs a full-time Goose Project Officer, Ross Lilley, who in turn brings in a dozen other counters, operating with binoculars, telescopes and clicker- counters from four-wheel drive vehicles, to help him assess numbers.

At present farmers are paid pounds 9.50 per head per annum to entertain geese on their land, but they claim that the money is nothing like enough to compensate them for the losses they are suffering. The 4,000-acre RSPB reserve at Gruinard, in the north-west of the island, relieves pressure to some extend, but the huge flocks, 500 or even 1,000 strong, often prefer to feed elsewhere - especially on the lush pastures of Craigens Farm, next door, where the tenant, Tony Archibald, has to manage his excellent dairy herd "round the geese".

Almost everybody has had to cut down substantially on numbers of sheep and cattle, such is the grazing competition. Farmers now find it impossible to plant cereal crops in autumn, since the emerging shoots are immediately eaten off and killed.

Nor is it only farmers who are worried. Mr Lilley himself acknowledges that "there is concern all round, not least in Scottish Natural Heritage". One fear is that sheer overcrowding, and the pollution of the fields by droppings, will bring on some form of epidemic. Desperate remedies are being mentioned - for instance that people should be sent to the Arctic breeding grounds to prick thousands of eggs, so that they never hatch.

Can it make sense that taxpayers should shell out nearly half a million pounds a year to foster the increase in numbers of birds which are no longer threatened? The Islay farmers are in little doubt that this is conservation gone mad - and nobody can say what will happen next spring, when the current agreement with Scottish Natural Heritage is due to end.

Scottish Natural Heritage has hinted that the rate of compensation must be brought down; the island's farmers insist that it must go up. There is every indication that, come April, something will have to give.