Where have all the geese gone? For centuries the New Grounds, an area of reclaimed salt marsh on the east bank of the river Severn, were renowned for the thousands of white-fronted geese that wintered there.
It was the presence of these geese, long-distance migrants from arctic Russia, that convinced Peter Scott that he should establish his collection of wildfowl at Slimbridge, overlooking the New Grounds, in 1946.
The geese had been traditionally preserved for shooting by the Berkeley family, owners of the land for 800 years. Shooting was, however, strictly controlled. At least three keepers were employed during the season to look after them, while there were strict shooting rules that ensured that the geese were never driven off.
With the establishment of the Wildfowl Trust in 1947, the whitefronts continued to thrive, with numbers increasing annually. The flock peaked at 7,600 birds, during the period 1965-69. I remember visiting Slimbridge then, during my school holidays, and being deeply impressed by the flocks of geese that I watched from the hides of the Wildfowl Trust. Today, the hides are still there, but if you see more than a dozen wild white fronts you can count yourself lucky. Despite protection, the geese have deserted the area.
It would be easy to believe that the geese have suffered a catastrophic decline, but the truth is very different. The population hasn’t collapsed at all, it’s thriving. However, the geese no longer have much incentive to fly to England for the winter.
They still migrate from their arctic Russian breeding grounds on the Kanin Peninsula and Novaya Zemlya to western Europe, but remain in the Low Countries for the winter. Feeding is good, hunting pressure low and, in recent decades, the weather has remained mild enough to let them stay there.
According to the European Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (EBBA2), a hefty and authoritative volume published at the end of last year, the number of white-fronted geese wintering in the Baltic and North Sea area has risen from 50,000 to 70,000 birds in the 1960s to 1,200,000 today.
Should there be a prolonged period of freezing weather on the near Continent, then there’s a good chance that thousands of these geese will move west to southern Britain, but cold snaps are now so rare that the tradition of wintering in the UK has been lost.
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