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Geese On Islay - Wildlife spectacle or agricultural pest

Malcolm Ogilvie

In the first few days of October the geese began to arrive on Islay from their arctic breeding grounds. By the end of the month we can expect up to 35,000 Barnacle Geese (illustrated below) and 15,000 Greenland White-fronted Geese to have arrived, the great majority of them spending the whole winter on the island, not returning north until the middle of April.

Barnacle Goose This great assemblage of birds forms one of the finest wildlife spectacles in the country and attracts many birdwatchers to the island, thus boosting its tourist industry. At the same time, the birds cause considerable economic loss to another important island industry, namely farming. For the last seven years, Scottish Natural Heritage has paid out around £400,000 each winter to about 100 farmers and crofters in recognition of the damage the geese cause.

Both species are protected although the Scottish agriculture department can issue shooting licences to prevent serious agricultural damage. However, for several years the farmers have opted into the goose management scheme run by SNH and accepted payments instead. Then, in autumn 1998, two farmers applied for licences to shoot Barnacle Geese. These were duly granted even though the farms were both in Special Protection Areas, designated under the European Birds Directive because of their importance for geese. The Scottish Office believed that the designation did not prevent licences being issued. The RSPB and WWT begged to differ and sought a judicial review. This was granted and the licences were promptly withdrawn before any geese could be shot. The court case was only heard at the end of September this year and the result may not be known for several weeks. In the meantime, the geese on Islay continue to cost the taxpayer substantial sums of money and this payment scheme, and three others in Scotland, have recently been reviewed by the National Goose Forum set up by the previous government. The Forum's final report, due out soon, will make proposals for resolving geese and agriculture conflicts throughout Scotland.

The Islay farmers will again be paid this winter and, to be frank, will probably be happier to receive the money than to be given licences to shoot the geese. Agriculture is in such dire straits that any subsidy, and the goose payments are certainly a form of subsidy, is welcomed as the farmers struggle to keep afloat. The large numbers of geese are a tribute to the conservation efforts of the last 20-30 years, but have also been boosted by the intensification of farming on the island, improved grass mixtures and greater use of fertiliser. Balancing the continued well-being of the geese against the continued well-being of the island's economy is the challenge now facing everyone involved.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.