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Wild goose chase

Outdoor Living

PROTECTED SPECIES Almost the entire world population of light-bellied Brent geese winter in Ireland, but their numbers are falling.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Lecanvey pier. The tide is up, the water steely grey, full of late winter cold and topped above with low cloud. To the west the open ocean, the colour of blued steel, metallic, almost surgically precise. A light swell draws an endless series of rippling lines from there toward the shore. As they approach, the lines reveal themselves as gentle undulations in the water, slow-moving, round-topped waves that pass beneath my feet to wash upon the rocks and over the strand, vaguely musical and rhythmic sighs, as if the very sea itself were breathing deep in sleep.
A pair of Brent geese fly in against the wind. I think they might land close by, but they know better and curve away to the far side of the bay, where they fold their wings at the edge of that light surf. Their murmurings reach my ears; a strange sound of gabbling laughter only they can understand, their minds perhaps on the long journey that lies ahead, on the Arctic adventure that awaits, and the frenetic task of egg-laying and gosling-rearing that will fill their few short weeks of summer.
It makes me think; with what will I fill my days while they are gone? What will I be when they return?
More round the headland and stretch across the bay. They pass overhead as a long, loose ‘V’ and call a greeting to the pair already on the ground. These answer, with their necks craned as if their eyes were poor. The flock lower their legs and fly low as if they mean to land, but turn away at the last moment to the weedbeds of Old Head, which the receding tide will reveal.
Although the Brent is small for a goose, hardly larger than a drake mallard, I still think it would make a fine dinner. In fact, I have long had it in mind that one of these birds would one day come home with me. Their relative scarcity has kept them safe.
Even 20 years ago I’m certain we saw them 50 or 60 strong, grazing on the salt marsh at Mulranny. Now there might be a score together when the wind blows from the east. Where have they gone? Like so many other birds their numbers are dwindling, and will continue to dwindle until such time as we sort out whatever it is we are doing to our planet – their planet.
Our Brent geese are of the light-bellied variety. There is also a dark-bellied Brent, which is more common and widespread and found in good numbers around the coast of the United Kingdom. Almost the entire world population of light-bellied Brent geese winter here in Ireland. ‘Amber listed’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and vulnerable, they enjoy the protection of the law. Much as I would like to eat one, I may not. I shall get by.
Still, with my appetite whetted I set out to enquire as to what sort of table bird they might be. Back in 1867 the Journal of Agriculture carried an article authored by W Wallace Fyfe, entitled ‘Wildfowl’, a subject with which the author was well acquainted. In his fortunate day he reported certain coasts of Britain to be ‘infested’ with Brent, and recorded the manner with which they could be acquired for the table.
With reference to a certain Colonel Hawker, Fyfe tells us of the ‘mode of approaching the watchful Brent by means of a punt or flat bottomed boat, ‘armed with a huge fowling piece’, in which the person of the hunter (presumably the jolly Colonel) is concealed.’  
‘He either fires at the birds as they float upon the water, or as they are upon the rise; and it is wonderful to find how many are at times brought down – nearly two dozen Brent geese having been killed and secured at one discharge.’
Imagine, our entire Mulranny geese could be wiped out in a morning – what feasting!
A century before that, the Brent was ‘so formidable in numbers about the coast of Picardy’ (in north-east France, where both light-bellied and dark-bellied varieties are to be found) ‘and destroyed such quantities of corn, that the inhabitants were compelled to rise en masse and muster for their destruction.’
How times have changed. Will we ever see such numbers again? We certainly will not, not if we eat the few remaining birds that are left. They shall go free, until there are too many once more. For now we shall look on and wonder at the days that went before, and be pleased with our two at Lecanvey.