Policy report and recommendations of the National Goose Forum

Date: 10 04 00

Letter sent to Duncan Isles, Countryside & Natural Heritage Unit, SERAD, Victoria Quay, Edinburgh

Dear Mr Isles

POLICY REPORT & RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE NATIONAL GOOSE FORUM

Geese are a severe problem for crofters in many parts of the Highlands and Islands, and the issue has become much worse in recent years - both in terms of numbers of geese on current sites, and the spread of the goose problem to new areas. The precise nature of the problem varies considerably according to the location. In Tiree and Uist, for example, while other species do impact on agriculture, the over-riding priority is to address summer damage from naturalised greylag geese - in contrast to Islay where the problem arises from the protected Greenland barnacle and white-fronted geese which over-winter there.

The SCU has endeavoured to participate positively as a member of the National Goose Forum as we believe face to face dialogue is the best way to make progress with such complex and contentious issues. Indeed we have on occasion suggested that the National Goose Forum and the Access Forum provide models for SERAD to progress debate on other complex issues - such as the forthcoming Crofting Reform Act. That said, we sometimes questioned the value of our participation as much of the Forum's work concerned establishing the biology and population dynamics of the various goose populations, rather than examining the practical impact of geese on crofts/farms, or in seeking workable practical solutions. Fielding representatives from two of the islands most affected by geese has certainly proved very demanding of time for those concerned, and quite a costly exercise for the Union.

The Scottish Crofters Union welcomes SERAD's publication of this report as another valuable step towards the management of wild geese in a manner that is sustainable both for geese and for the crofting and farming communities. We feel, however, that the report has perhaps rather too global a perspective, and an over-emphasis on potential administrative structures, at the expense of identifying and discussing local goose impacts and possible practical solutions on the ground. As the report is lengthy, we do not attempt to comment on all aspects and recommendations, but rather offer some general comment on selected issues, followed by other comments tied to the framework of the report's recommendations.

Biodiversity

The Union believes that the National Policy Framework for geese must take a broader perspective on biodiversity than the National Goose Forum has taken to date. We agree that Scotland must play its part in conserving internationally valued goose species, but this must not be allowed to be at the expense of other species through one-track goose conservation policies. The SCU is particularly concerned by the impact the escalating summer goose problem has had in cropping patterns. The damage from geese as they move in on the croft-land in late summer has forced many crofters either out of cropping, or else to harvest corn as silage, rather than trying to let it mature as grain. This results in the loss of valuable habitat for many species, and the dwindling of irreplaceable indigenous seed stocks for crops such as bere barley, black oats and rye.

This has to be a major concern for those charges with conserving and enhancing biodiversity. Likewise, conservationists should be concerned by the damage done by geese to the unique machair habitat, and also the depletion of the diversity of winter habitats in areas with heavy winter goose populations .

Naturalised Greylag Geese

We consider that the report dismisses the problems of naturalised greylag geese far too lightly. The "small but increasing" population has increased massively in recent years. While numbers may be small in absolute terms compared to some other species in other parts of Scotland, their number is high when you take into account their impact on the extremely limited availability of good quality land in these areas.

These geese impact severely at certain times of the year, late summer being the worst as the geese move in on the crofts en masse. Crops of corn or grass for silage are tall and vulnerable at this stage, and the geese have a devastating impact in flattening the crops. Ena McNeill, Chair of the SCU North Uist Branch described the North Uist crofters' perspective well in her article for The Herald of 22 March (copy follows). Crofters also used to let the grass grow longer at the end of the summer for early winter grazing, but now this is not possible due to goose grazing pressure. The geese also graze the "early bite" in spring, setting back grass growth for grazing and silage/hay crops.

It is the highest priority for our members affected by these growing populations of naturalised greylag geese that damage is avoided at the critical late summer period. It is not an option to allow damage to corn and silage crops, and then compensate crofters for the loss - the cropping is far too critical to the crofting agricultural system and biodiversity for that. Goose management schemes should therefore provide funding for the employment of goose scarers for the critical August and September period. It is suggested, as an example, that a team of 4 scarers over this period would be adequate for the Uists.

Any new arrangement delivered through a local goose management scheme must also ensure that licenses for out of season shooting are available to crofters at short notice, to enable them to scare the geese from maturing crops timeously. Currently the turnaround time is far too long, with the result that the damage is done before shooting can be deployed to scare away the geese. We suggest that all those who suffered damage/had close season shooting licenses the previous year are automatically issued with "provisional" licenses by SERAD. These would then remain invalid/"on hold" until validated by the local goose management group. The advantage would be that the local committee would be able to turnaround an application for license validation far more quickly (and with better local knowledge) than is currently possible with an application for a license through SERAD. The crofter would then be able to scare the geese more effectively to protect the valuable crops.

In addition to this, we suggest that the goose management scheme for these areas would compensate crofters for the loss of the "early bite" (hectare basis).

Greenland Barnacle and Greenland White-Fronted Geese

As far as the crofting area is concerned, these goose species are a major issue on the island of Islay. The massive number of geese of these protected species overwintering on the island from September to May has a major and unavoidable impact on agricultural activity for the rest of the year. The geese consume all available grazing where they over-winter, reducing some areas to mud pan and delaying spring grass growth by 3 weeks. The lifespan of grass reseeds is also severely shortened.

With such large numbers of geese present, scaring and zoning does not work (it has been tried), and the problem can only be addressed by a properly resources compensation scheme - and the culling of geese by license as and when permitted. The detailed views of the local SCU Islay and Jura members accord with those of the local branch of the NFUS, whose views have already been committed to paper and submitted to you.