Film clips of geese being shot on the island of Islay have prompted renewed allegations that many are left to suffer slow, painful deaths.
Campaigners say that hundreds of geese are injured or crippled, and not humanely killed. They are demanding that the shooting ceases on the Hebridean island.
Experts have expressed concerns, and urged reviews. But the government agency that manages the cull, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), insists that marksmen are following “best practice”.
Islay hosts about 60 per cent of the world’s barnacle geese and one quarter of the world’s threatened Greenland white-fronted geese. They are regarded as internationally important by conservationists.
Up to 50,000 of the birds arrive on the island every winter and eat the grasses on which farmers depend to feed their sheep and cattle. Farmers receive nearly £1 million a year to compensate for the damage the geese do.
But they say that the birds must also be culled to limit the harm they do. Under a scheme agreed by SNH in 2015, more than 8,200 barnacle geese have been shot in the last three years, with 3,321 killed in the winter of 2017-18.
Now, three short video clips of flocks of geese being shot, reportedly in February and March 2018, have stoked concerns about the cull, as previously reported by The Ferret.
They show marksmen firing rapid shots at large flocks of geese as they fly off, apparently killing some and injuring others. The shooters then wring the necks of some of the geese injured and left behind, or fire at them again.
According to Animal Concern Advice Line, the videos show that welfare rules are being broken. “Marksmen should only shoot if they are sure no white-fronted geese are present,” said the group’s John Robins.
“One video clearly shows marksmen driving up, jumping out of their pick-up truck and blasting at a field full of geese within seconds. They didn’t have time to determine if there were sheep in the field far less different species of goose.”
Robins also claimed that the videos showed a “crippling rate” far higher that the ten per cent allowed for by SNH. “It is shocking to think that government ministers find it acceptable that any birds should be crippled and left to die a slow, painful death,” he said.
“From the evidence I have seen many thousands of birds have suffered this cruel fate over the years the cull has been taking place. Quite frankly the scatter gun shooting technique adopted by SNH is totally inadequate and cannot do anything but cause cruelty and suffering.”
Robins insisted that the kind of shooting shown in the film clips was still taking place, and demanded a halt to the killing of geese on Islay. An eye-witness, who requested not to be named, also told The Ferret that geese are still being shot in similar ways on the island.
Dr Steve Percival, an ornithological consultant who has been studying barnacle geese on Islay for 34 years, has reviewed the videos. They highlighted concerns he has previously raised about animal welfare, he said, and reinforced the need for a thorough review.
The high crippling rate shown “makes a nonsense” of SNH’s claim that there’s only a 10 per cent crippling loss, he argued. Marksmen were “shooting recklessly into fleeing flocks from the public highway, without making proper checks for non-target species,” he alleged.
They were also “shooting at ranges much greater than should be used to ensure a clean kill”, Percival claimed. He added that not all injured birds were cleanly dispatched “resulting in birds suffering a lingering death”.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland has also seen the videos. “We have requested that SNH run their methodology past the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals as an independent animal welfare authority,” said the society’s head of species, Dr Paul Walton.
“RSPB Scotland recognises that Islay’s globally significant Greenland barnacle goose population has impacts on agricultural systems on Islay. We have, however, consistently promoted an approach that combines strategic goose scaring with management support for affected farmers, rather than large scale shooting.”
RSPB Scotland warned that SNH’s Islay goose strategy set a “dangerous precedent” for wildlife management in Scotland. “SNH has not shown willing to adjust policy on this, so we have reluctantly resigned our seat on the National Goose Management Review Group,” Walton added.
SNH, however, defended the way it carried out the shooting. “Goose management on Islay is carried out in the most humane way possible with the aim of reducing the significant level of agricultural damage caused by grazing geese and maintaining the population of barnacle geese at close to the current level of around 30,000,” said an SNH spokeswoman.
“We have had these videos reviewed by an independent shooting expert who has confirmed that our skilled marksmen are following best practice in carrying out their role.”
The spokeswoman also pointed out that the crippling loss referred only to those birds that may be injured but fly off and are never found. It does not include birds injured and dispatched immediately after the shooting, nor injured birds found and dispatched at a later time, she said.
SNH is planning to review its Islay goose strategy in 2019. It confirmed that counts of barnacle geese populations in November and December 2018 were around 30 per cent lower than in the same months in 2017.
As a result SNH has limited the total number of geese that can be shot on Islay this winter to 1,000. In 2017-18 the limit was 3,600 and in 2016-17 it was 2,790.
Cover photo thanks to Steve Percival.