Jonathan: My usual morning rounds on the croft have recently included a tour of the maternity units: two little enclosures where geese sit perched on a pile of straw, goose down and a clutch of eggs – inside a white plastic fish box. I take food to them so as to minimize the time they spend off the nest: not only will the eggs tend to get cold, but most importantly the ravens will swoop down and steal an egg from the nest (a lot are lost that way). There’s also a wise old goose in the low hen house with the hens – she’s learnt from experience. Well, at my first goose stop this morning there was Mum sat proudly on the remaining two of her eight eggs: all the other six had turned into noisy little balls of yellowy-green fluff! It won’t be long now before the other geese follow with theirs. Here’s some pictures of Mum and her babies, and the happy family.
Denise: Over the past four to six weeks we’ve made our first forays into selling eggs for hatching on ebay auctions. Generally offered as half-dozens, sent in specially moulded polystyrene ‘boxes’ – so-called polyboxes. From a starting price of £3.99, Welsumers have reached as much about £5.50; Buff Orpingtons do better at up to £13.50 (both plus p+p). The season for such sales is very short, as laying in numbers only really starts in mid January, and by now (late February) even the laziest ill-fed flocks are starting to feel a spring in their step, and the market becomes flooded. Even so a sale at the starting price of £3.99 is still twice what we get for ordinary egg sales, though for quite a bit more work. The same works for the geese: these eggs are sold in 4s, and our Embdens have reached £20 for four (plus p+p). But again the window of opportunity between demand and supply is very limited both in numbers and time. The extra income (perhaps £150 to £200) is very welcome – especially as feed has gone up by more than 35% in six months!
Jonathan: During the night a wild north-easterly laid down a carpet of fine powdery snow. Icy cold despite heavy cloud. Roads not salted, so a bit wobbly going to the croft. Loaded up with my bucket of grain and egg collecting bucket, I’m enveloped by a ferocious blizzard, blasting in from The Minch. In seconds I’m lost in a maelstrom of needle-sharp ice and swirling darkness. The geese are calling for me, and I for them, but I can scarcely see my own feet. I abandon the usual feeding point and rush headlong down the hill, for the shelter of the old ruins. Amidst the howling wind and stinging ice I can make out their call, but in the meagre light before dawn I can see nothing. Then, suddenly, the heavy beating of wings and looking up, the air is filled with geese descending around me, their wings outspread, all white feathers and bright orange legs lit up against the black sky by no more than the ethereal light of the snow itself. One of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. A moment I’ll never forget – not least because one goose thumped right into my chest!
Jonathan: A sad and difficult day. Geese are a bit silly at times, a bit cussed, and can make a bit of mess. But they have individual characters, and are very social creatures. It is difficult to be indifferent to geese, unless I suppose one keeps them in very large numbers and on a strictly commercial basis. The numbers on our croft have peaked at 24 this year (ignoring losses of young goslings), and I know most of them well, certainly those that weren’t born this year. But even this modest number is too many to sustain over winter. The intention this year was to reduce this 24 down to nine, two established breeding trios of older birds, and the young male and two females born this year and raised initally in the walled garden. Those to be culled included the very noisy chinese geese and their two youngsters, an older female who appears to be infertile, and all of the ten geese born on the croft this year.
Yesterday afternoon I rounded them up into the sheep fank (with the help of the sheep dog from next door, who obviously thought I needed help!) and then had the heart-rending job of taking out geese one by one to kill. Being separated from the others makes them desperate and the best way to quieten them is to tuck their heads under one’s arm so that they can’t see – they then go quiet. I use a captive bolt gun to stun them and then cut their throats. Sorry to be detailed on this, but there’s no good comes from fudging and glossing. Once they are dead, my emotional trial is over. They are then raw food to be processed. Sounds heartless. So is eating a KFC meal without ever giving a thought to the animals that have died to make it.
A complication was that a lot of the geese had lost their coloured leg rings, which meant I couldn’t tell what age they were; and under the circumstances I couldn’t identify them from usual behaviour; so by the time I was down to 11 geese left, I had to stop, to avoid the risk of not having sufficient males or females. Not ideal, but next spring, when they start thinking about raising new families, I shall be able to identify who is who, and fit new leg rings accordingly.
Lacking any equipment to pluck the birds entirely (by hand that would be extremely time-consuming and difficult), we can’t yet roast geese whole, which is no doubt what most people would imagine. Insteady I pluck all the best quality curled feather and down for making pillows and cushions, and then cut out the breast meat, typically 8oz or so per breast, and a dark richly-flavoured meat it is. It’s not getting all we could from them, but it’s all that’s practicable in the circumstances this year. A few breasts have gone to neighbours as thank-you’s for this and that, but the rest in the freezer. Each breast will make Denise and I a meal.
Thankfully the trauma is one that I only have to deal with once a year. For the rest of the year the geese are a real pleasure to keep – making very little work and costing nothing more than perhaps £1 per year of grain each bird. That’s good value.
Denise had a visit from the Comhairle’s (council’s) environmental health officer – a complaint about the geese again. They’ve been ‘camping’ overnight outside someones gate and leaving a bit of a mess! Strictly the geese are doing what they are entitled to do, but it doesn’t make for good neighbourly relations. I’ve been on the phone to the council and to my neighbour about this, and we’ve agreed that he should show ‘calculated aggression’ towards the geese to make them feel it is not a nice place to be (not something I can do myself – the geese would never come near me again!) and I shall do what I can – once I’m home for good – to ‘re-educate’ the geese. It’s a fine line to be drawn between holding out for my rights, and also accommodating my neighbours, even when these are in conflict. Not easy! But this is the stuff of making life as a community work.