Speaker: Nick Acheson
Reporter: Sue Gale
We were delighted to welcome Nick Acheson, Norfolk Wildlife Trust Ambassador and Pensthorpe Trustee, to talk to us about his new book, ‘The Meaning of Geese’. The pandemic came as a shock to us all, compounded in Nick’s case by the loss of his beloved dog and of a very close friend. What was he going to do with himself? And the answer was, follow the
Geese! Between September 2020 and April 2021 Nick rode over 1200 miles on his mother’s 42-year-old bike! Not an easy task on a modern, light-weight bike, but much harder on this one.
Nick introduced us to the geese that visit Norfolk in the winter. The Pink-footed Geese the first to arrive, from Iceland, and then the Dark-bellied Brents from Western Siberia. Non- breeding adults are the first to arrive, followed some weeks later by family parties. These flocks might sometimes contain stray members of the other sub-species of Brent Geese – the Pale-bellied ones or a Black Brandt. Occasionally even a rarer goose like a Red-Breasted goose, and the second wave of Pink-footed Geese might shelter a Cackling Goose or one of the Bean Geese. Although the flocks we see today still look enormous, and number in tens of thousands, numbers are in fact declining. The Pink-feet graze on the coastal marshes when they first arrive, but when the sugar beet has been lifted, they spread out across the county.
New practises in farming may be contributing to the decline in numbers. Sugar beet fields are more thoroughly harvested, leaving less behind for the geese, but also the fields are often drilled straight after harvest for winter cereal crops. The newly emerging plants would be attractive to the grazing geese but of course farmers will drive the geese away to protect their crops. The geese are learning to feed in maize fields as this crop is increasingly grown for energy production. Russian White-fronted Geese arrive in much smaller numbers, and on this side of the country are mostly Russian Whitefronts. These geese tend to be site-faithful, and two flocks are found in Norfolk, in Holkham and in the Broads.
Of course, Norfolk is also home to several resident species of goose, mostly feral birds that are the result of introductions in years gone by. You can see Greylags almost anywhere, but it is much less likely that you will encounter a wild Icelandic Greylag which is a slighter, leaner bird than ours. Canada Geese were introduced by the Stuarts, and they are also pretty common, but their numbers have declined as those of the Greylags have increased. The largest flocks of feral Barnacle geese can be found at Holkham and Pensthorpe, and these have been intensively studied and ringed. It seems both flocks go to Suffolk for the winter! Here they intermingle and new pairings may come from both flocks. All then return to Norfolk to breed. Honorary Geese are the Egyptians (they are really ducks), of which there are 500 in the UK, spreading out from Holkham where they were introduced. They breed very early, and the warmer earlier springs may have contributed to their success.
Nick communicates his enthusiasm and love for his subject very well, and this was a most enjoyable talk. For the detailed story of which geese he saw when on his bicycle tour you only have to refer to his book. Many thanks to him for a great evening.
Please feel free to read through our reports from our monthly indoor / online meetings.