Monday, 20 February 2012

Wild goose story No 1

Last week we stayed in a Tardis. We arrived at what we thought was a holiday cottage after dark. Everything seemed normal. It was simple but cosy, just the job for a quiet week on the Solway coast. But when I stepped outside the next morning it seemed I had been transported to another planet, where the fields grow geese instead of grass, the hedgerows move and shudder with life, and the sky sings to you. Then I realised it was Earth after all - we had just been transported back in Time.

We were staying on the RSPB's Mersehead nature reserve, where there are over 6000 barnacle geese grazing on the fields and salt marsh. Farmland birds like yellowhammer, tree sparrow and lapwing are still common as muck, and the air rings with the songs of a thousand skylarks. Fifty years ago a fair bit of our lowland countryside would have been like this. A hundred years ago it all would have been. When we read the figures in the magazines ' 50% loss in this species'; '79% decline in that species' it's hard to imagine what it really means. This is what it means. When I walk around the fields at home I'm thrilled to see one or two skylarks; to watch a pair of lapwing displaying; to hear a yellowhammer demanding 'a little bit of bread and no cheese'. But here at Mersehead you can get a taste of what it must have been like to be surrounded by everyday birds - every day.

The barnacle geese, of course, are an exception. For some reason the whole Svalbard population - nearly 30,000 at the last count - has decided that the Solway Firth is the place to go - the Costa del Sol of brantian holiday destinations. They were never found anywhere else, as far as we know. There are other barnacle geese that frequent different spots around the Scottish Highlands and islands, but they come from Greenland, or Russia - not Svalbard. The Solway geese roost on the endless sand and mudflats that disappear out into the estuary like a mirage. At dawn I watched them flying in to feed. Skein after skein scribbling their dark scratchy patterns across the sky as they moved around to take turns in the lead. They filled the stubbly fields of the reserve with their doggy barks as they grazed and chatted. Despite their ubiquity I never once thought 'only more barnacle geese' when I passed them. They were in the right place.

While we were staying at the reserve over the week we heard about some rare geese that had been spotted locally - a red-breasted goose, and a Taverner's Canada goose. My daughter and other half duly went off in pursuit, and came back, triumphant. I'm sure they were beautiful birds, fascinating to see, but I couldn't get worked up about them. There is of course the remote possibility that they are naturally spreading our way - but it's very unlikely. More probably they were either swept off course, hitched up with the wrong crowd, or maybe even escaped from a collection. So not in the right place, you see.

For me, that's what it's all about. Species, habitats, ecosystems, biodiversity - all being in the right place at the right time in the right numbers. Nature reserves like Mersehead are a window back to a time when things weren't as bad as they are now - and a signpost to a future where things could get better again, if we followed them.


  1. Stayed at Mersehead in the summer. Fantastic place - the highlight of our week was finding a colony of Rhinoceros beetles (Sinodendron cylindricum) - the first record for Dumfries and Galloway!

    1. Thanks for the comment Ephemera. I'm really looking forward to seeing more invertebrates around as the days warm up - sure readers sre getting bored with me banging on about birds!!