The shooting of thousands of geese on the island of Islay leaves many to suffer a slow death, contaminates the environment and is founded on “poor science”, according to a new scientific study.

Independent bird experts have concluded that the mass culling of geese that fly in every October from Greenland is unnecessary, unsustainable and does not deliver value for money. They have called for the killing to end.

Campaigners have seized on their findings, accusing the government agency that does the shooting, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), of a “cruel culling culture”. But SNH and farmers argued that the cull was vital to prevent agricultural damage and protect businesses.

There has long been conflict over geese on Islay. Up to 50,000 of the birds arrive every winter and eat the grasses on which farmers depend to feed their sheep and cattle.

Islay hosts about 60 per cent of the world’s barnacle geese and a quarter of the world’s threatened Greenland white-fronted geese. They are regarded as internationally important by conservationists.

Farmers receive nearly £1 million a year to compensate for the damage the geese do. But they say that burgeoning numbers mean that the birds must also be culled.

Under a scheme agreed by SNH in 2015, the number of barnacle geese shot has been rapidly rising. More than 8,200 have been shot in the last three years, with 3,321 killed in the winter of 2017-18.

Barnacle geese shot on Islay

WinterNumber shot
2010-11423
2011-12744
2012-131,091
2013-141,546
2014-151,278
2015-162,026
2016-172,900
2017-183,321
source: Scottish Natural Heritage

Now scientists have said that the shooting, sometimes using pump-action shotguns, should stop. In an article in the latest edition of the magazine, British Wildlife, goose experts, Dr Steve Percival and Dr Eric Bignal, argued that the Islay management scheme was “fundamentally flawed”.

They pointed out that hundreds of birds were wounded rather than killed outright by shooting, and left to die gradually from their injuries. SNH accepted that this could happen to one in ten birds shot, but Percival and Bignal highlighted evidence suggesting the proportion could be much higher.

They criticised the “common” use of lead shot, which they warned could pollute Islay’s water and soil. It was a “cause for concern” because of the risk the pollution poses to other wildlife, particularly ducks which can ingest toxic pellets.

The experts contended that the complexity of goose movements to and from Islay and within the island was poorly understood. This meant “there is a risk of conflating immigration and survival,” they said.

Disturbance caused by the mass shooting could “be simply moving the problem elsewhere” and endanger white-fronted geese, they suggested. Other grassland birds such as golden plovers, lapwings and curlews could also be affected.

“The current scheme is not sustainable, cannot be demonstrated to deliver the best value for money, is raising animal welfare issues, and is creating a long-term lead-poisoning risk to birds, other wild animals and livestock,” Percival and Bignal concluded.

“We do not suggest that a radical change in management is needed, but rather that the existing scheme should be reassessed and refined based on a better scientific understanding of the geese and their impact, and specifically that the culling element of the scheme should be removed.”

Percival, an ornithological consultant who has been studying barnacle geese on Islay for 34 years, thought that the cull would not achieve its aim of reducing damage. “The cull target is based on poor science that does not take into account real-life goose behaviour,“ he told The Ferret.

“The way that the cull is being implemented – particularly the use of pump-action shotguns fired into fleeing flocks at long range – has resulted in large numbers of geese being crippled as well as those directly killed. This gives major concern from an animal welfare point of view.”

geese
An injured and bleeding barnacle goose on Islay

Photo: Steve Percival

John Robins, from Animal Concern Advice Line, highlighted previous controversies over SNH culling ravens in Perthshire and hedgehogs in Uist. “There is a cruel culling culture within SNH and other Government departments which make me ashamed to be Scottish,” he said.

“It is shocking that public money is being used to kill these geese in such a cruel, unnecessary and wasteful way. The birds that are killed are dumped in landfill and hundreds of wounded birds are left to suffer a slow and painful death.”

He added: “I want to see all culling suspended and a full review of culls sanctioned by the Scottish Government. It is time to cull the 19th century attitudes which pervade Holyrood and replace that killing culture with a humane approach more suited to the 21st century.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust both pulled out of the Scottish Government’s National Goose Management Review Group over the Islay cull. They have lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission.

Paul Walton from RSPB Scotland urged SNH to reconsider the cull. “It is not properly evidence-based and shifts the issue on to crofters and farmers on other islands,” he said.

“It sets a dangerous precedent for regulating populations of legally protected wildlife and it is probably adding to pressures on the globally threatened Greenland white-fronted goose. Moreover, we believe that an effective alternative approach is available.”

geese

Photo: Steve Percival

SNH pointed out that its 10-year Islay goose management strategy aimed to balance conservation of barnacle geese with tackling significant agricultural damage. “We are confident the strategy is the most effective way to reduce the impact on Islay farming, while protecting wintering geese with refuge and feeding areas,” said the agency’s head of natural resource management, Claudia Rowse.

“We are committed to collecting and reviewing data to ensure the strategy remains effective. As part of that process, the Islay Local Goose Management Group intends to invite the authors of the report to meet and discuss the issues raised.”

Rowse accepted that there were concerns about lead shot, which was not used on wetland sites. “We plan to phase out lead shot for all SNH operations in the near future,” she added.

“We strive to ensure goose management is carried out in the most humane way possible by using skilled marksmen. While the overwhelming majority of birds shot are killed outright, there is a risk of wounding a small number of geese. We continue to work to minimise this risk wherever possible.”

Geese really are like locusts. They completely clear the fields of grass for six months of the year. Robert Johnstone, Islay National Farmers Union

The National Farmers Union (NFU) in Scotland warned that increasing numbers of barnacle geese were seriously undermining farming in Islay. “The island’s goose management strategy clearly states that the ongoing high levels of damage threaten the viability of farming on Islay,” said the union’s policy manager, Andrew Midgely .

He stressed, however, that population control “should be carried out in accordance with good shooting practice.”

According to Robert Johnstone, chair of Islay, Jura and Colonsay branch of NFU Scotland, farmers were only compensated for half the total cost of the damage inflicted by geese. SNH’s total budget for goose compensation was about £900,000 a year.

“Geese really are like locusts,” he said. “They completely clear the fields of grass for six months of the year – grass that is vital for feeding to our sheep and cattle. They dominate other species and damage wildlife.”

This was “an extraordinarily serious issue” made worse by the very wet weather, Johnstone insisted. “Geese control the way we farm. It would be great if there was another way of controlling numbers, but at the moment no-one has come up with a better idea.”

He added: “We have to protect our livelihoods, and this is the best way we have. If we don’t keep the numbers of geese down, it will be almost impossible for us to continue farming on Islay.”

Photos thanks to Steve Percival. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.