Western Isles crofters face ruin by invasion of voracious wild geese

Jack O'Sullivan,Scotland Correspondent
Saturday 25 March 2000 01:00 GMT

They are a wonderful sight of wild beauty - hundreds of geese descending on the coast of the Uists in the Western Isles, producing an eerie squall of sound across the landscape.

Yet to the islands' crofters struggling to feed stock after the winter, the geese spell disaster, as farmers watch their grasslands grazed back, their hay and oats flattened and the seed for next year providing a feast for the thriving birds.

Crofters on North and South Uist are warning they face ruin unless something is done to reduce the resident flocks of greylag geese, which, according Scottish Natural Heritage, have doubled or tripled in size in 20 years.

"I was out this morning and the grass was struggling to come through," said Ena McNeill, 59, a crofter on North Uist. "We're still feeding the stock, hoping there will be grass soon. But there are hundreds of geese grazing there today. When I was a child you had to go to one of the offshore islands to find one. Now you can shoot them from the bedroom window. Someone told me they were even eating the chicken food, they are so tame. I don't know how we'll survive."

The problem does not end with early grazing, she said."September comes and the best crop that you could wish for has been dinner, bed and breakfast to the geese, while you have been busy silaging the other half of your crop. You can say goodbye to next year's seed," she said, adding that crofters are having to use mainland seed , which does not grow well in the islands' soil.

Neil MacIntyre, 47, a crofter on South Uist, said he may have to abandon keeping stock if the geese carry on eating feed so that he is forced to import oats and hay.

The problem springs from the survival in the Western Isles of Britain's only resident flocks of greylag geese, which live on the islands all year. The strips of "machair", fertile, sandy plains upon which crofters and rare wildlife rely, are the precisely where the 3,000 native geese like to graze.

Andrew Douse, ornithologist and species manager for Scottish Natural Heritage, said: "We understand the difficulties. Crofting is a parlous business at the best of times. The population of greylags has increased and they are there all year around.

But we do provide loans for scaring devices and there are closed season licences available to shoot these birds. If the crofters abandoned mixed farming and just went over to sheep and collecting subsidies, it would have a very damaging effect on the biodiversity of the landscape."

The solutions are not coming quickly enough for the Uist crofters, however. "We do not want these flocks wiped out, just controlled to manageable numbers," Ms McNeill said. "My son has been waiting three weeks for a shooting licence and still hasn't received one. That is three weeks in which the geese have been able to do what they like."

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