Wild Goose chase that keps farmers guns quiet: Crofters on a Scottish island are being paid not to shoot migrating birds that graze on their land. John Arlidge reports

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EACH morning Ross Lilley leaves his lighthouse keeper's cottage on Islay and drives to the top of a nearby hill. There he sits in his car, binoculars and clipboard in hand, counting geese.

Mr Lilley, 25, is Britain's only goose officer. Each winter he counts tens of thousands of Greenland white-fronted geese and Barnacle geese which nest on the Argyll island, outnumbering humans ten to one.

The birds destroy valuable grazing land and for years farmers tried to scare them off using guns, gas, kites and balloons. The goose chase, however, proved unsuccessful and after the birds were classed as a threatened species, farmers turned to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), a body the Government set up last year to administer nature conservation, in Scotland, to find a solution.

Last October Mr Lilley and his SNH colleagues started a pounds 300,000 experimental 'goose management' scheme, compensating farmers for the damage the geese cause. This year the full programme was launched with farmers paid about pounds 9 for each goose that feeds on their land.

Mr Lilley drives from farm to farm calculating the average number of geese on the fields of the 110 farmers and crofters who have joined the programme. Last year payments ranged from pounds 40 to pounds 11,000. Paying farmers not to shoot an endangered species is unusual, Mr Lilley says, but financial incentives are vital 'in a marginal economy'.

''Islay's economy is based on agriculture which means that anything - like the geese - that threatens farming, threatens the whole island,' he said. 'The problem is, the geese that come here each winter are themselves a marginal group. Most of the world's Greenland and Barnacle populations feed here for seven months of the year. They depend on the good grass. We had to set up a scheme that would benefit people as well as the birds.'

Relations between the farmers and conservations, like Friends of the Earth, have been tense. Two years ago locals gathered in a village hall to harangue David Bellamy and other environmentalists. 'There was a feeling that the conservationists had got on their high horse and were telling farmers they should not do this or that,' Mr Lilley said. 'But we have overcome that. Unlike some environmentalists we understand that wildlife cannot simply be left alone. It has to be managed.'

Although farmers welcome the principle of the scheme, many say compensation levels are too low. Angus Kerr, 40, who farms 85 cows and 850 sheep on 3,500- acres, said: 'We accept that we cannot shoot the geese but the money we receive instead is not nearly enough. When they come they just destroy the land. If you are talking about nibbles per minute, they are lawn-mower quick. With less good grass to eat . . . my sheep and cows are less well-fed and produce fewer lambs and less milk.

'Over the past year I have lost pounds 6,000 in potential lamb, beef and milk sales but I have only received pounds 1,000 under the scheme. Without geese I would have 40 per cent more breeding animals and 40 per cent more income. I'm afraid that if the sums are not increased we will have to resort to shooting once again.'

Mr Lilley rules out culling. 'It is not an option. We simply do not know enough about the geese population to say that shooting would not cause a long-term decline in numbers.

'The level of compensation is already three times that offered in similar schemes in Holland, Germany and North America. We will be fine-tuning this year but we have to achieve a partnership.'

(Photographs omitted)