The sweet taste of success?

Pink-footed Geese. Photo: Tim Melling

The Pink-footed Goose is a somewhat unheralded success story in the UK, with a ten-fold increase in numbers over the past 70 years. And that is of some global significance since around 85% of the world population winters in the UK. Our Pinkfeet are from the Iceland and Greenland breeding populations whereas there are Pinkfeet from Svalbard which winter in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

Wintering Pinkfeet in the UK are mostly concentrated in northeast Scotland, the Solway, Lancashire and East Anglia (particularly Norfolk). We don’t get Pinkfeet very often in inland Northants (I’ve seen them at my local patch of Stanwick Lakes in just a couple of years) and so when I saw that there were a few birds around in recent weeks, including (in our terms) a massive flock of over 50, I thought to myself ‘Oh good, more Pinkfeet – further success’ but on a closer, but not very close, investigation that may not be what is going on here.

Pinkfeet, generally speaking, represent a success story for the relationship between wildlife and farming, and that is especially true in North Norfolk, where I regularly see this species. Pinkfeet enjoy gobbling up sugar beet from the fields – which doesn’t sound like a recipe for good relations between tens of thousands of geese and local farmers until you realise that Pinkfeet feed on the left over sugar beet tops which are left in the fields after farmers have harvested the crop. Pinkfeet eat the parts of the sugar beet that farmers discard. Whilst in those fields, the geese are fertilising them with their droppings and also are distracted from standing around in, or eating in, winter wheat fields.

Pink-footed Geese in a failed Potato crop. Photo: Tim Melling

It has, generally speaking, seemed to be a pretty good relationship (see here, here) but the strong connection between this species (whose UK population is of global significance) and one crop (sugar beet) has always meant that it could be a fragile equilibrium.

Sugar beet farming is to produce British sugar (by British Sugar) and the whole history of sugar beet production in the UK is fascinating in itself (see here, here, here). So what is happening to sugar beet production? There are fears that sugar beet may become a less-favoured crop because of restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and because of shifting balances of profits available from other crops. Also, it seems that more fields are being cleared and planted with winter wheat early in the autumn this year and so the geese are finding it more difficult to find places to feed. And so they are flying around more searching for good feeding sites, and a very small impact of that is that there have been more Pinkfeet in inland Northants than usual this autumn. So, as can happen, what looks like a ‘good thing’ locally is actually part of a ‘not so good thing’ at a wider scale.

So musing on Pinkfeet is quite stimulating.

  • It has always seemed to me that the fact that the discarded tops of sugar beet could feed tens of thousands of geese in winter might mean that a better way of harvesting the sugar beet, that took more of that discarded top into the farmers’ yield could spell disaster for these geese.
  • If sugar beet production suddenly ceased in East Anglia then we would see increased friction between Pinkfeet and farming as the geese, which are long-lived, travel around looking for food and spend more time in places where they aren’t welcome as a result.
  • Should ‘we’ be thinking of setting up goose refuges, packed with sugar beet specifically meant for goose consumption with the aim of supporting the geese and supporting farming locally (by concentrating the geese in areas not used for commercial farming)? And is there scope for some farmers to make money from providing goose-watching opportunities? This seems right up WWT’s street to me.
  • Pinkfeet didn’t evolve with sugar beet to feed on in large fields – what is their underlying ecology?
  • As a thought experiment, how much would the Pinkfoot population fall if sugar beet production ceased – and how much should we care?
  • How often do we see things locally which look good (or bad) which when seen in a bigger context are actually bad (or good)?

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15 Replies to “The sweet taste of success?”

  1. A good analysis. Wisdom requires the long view, so follow up now on the lines suggested with local farmers sounds to me to be the right thing to do. We don’t want to get into a situation where the geese are starving and are being shot, as would be the case if the issue escalates up to NFU and Defra level. The philosophy of these two organisations as far as nature is concerned is, if it is in the way either kill it or bulldoze it.

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  2. This is a fascinating piece and it will be interesting and perhaps worrying to see how sugar beet farming and wintering Pinkfeet numbers develop.

    Here in Somerset new tall ‘graceful’ electricity pylons will be erected in connection with the new Hinckley Point power station. These don’t seem suitable for Raven nests or for feeding Peregrines which the old fashioned pylons which are to be dismantled, support.

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  3. I was in East Yorkshire recently and saw massive flocks of Pink-foot travelling to and from night roosting sites on the Humber and day feeding in Vale of York.

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    1. A good read is Peter Scott and James Fishers " A Thousand Geese", describing the author's expedition to central Iceland in, i think, the late 1940's, to find the (as then ) unknown main breeding area of the Pinkfoot, the population being much smaller in those days.
      The increase in Pinks (and other species), along with the rise in mobility of the working population, has brought goose shooting within reach of almost anybody so inclined, a lot of
      money has been made by some people, but it has not been without its unsavoury aspect, as is usual where money is concerned.
      I believe there have been problems with some goose species, caused by high winter survival rates, aided by feeding on crops, and the increased populations damaging Arctic breeding grounds.

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      1. Trapit - I think it might even have been the early 1950s - amazing eh?

        From memory (and I think from GWCT) there are about 10,000 Pinkfeet killed each year in UK (out of a population of 300,000ish in winter).

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    2. Where they are presumably feeding on potato harvest waste as they do in East Scotland as there is little sugar beet grown in the area since the demise of the plant in York. Some of the flocks feeding in north Yorkshire are on grass.

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  4. My recollection is that the numbers of pinkfeet wintering in Lancashire have dropped over the decades as the geese have learnt there are better pickings in Norfolk and now following a peak in numbers in September/October they then reduce as birds move on to Norfolk (with the reverse occurring in the spring).
    Prior to the increase in beet production in Norfolk the bulk of the population stayed in Lancashire. I'm sure the WWT would have more accurate information of course.
    Similar to your suggestion about beet, many of the farmers local to Martin Mere in Lancashire deliver surplus / waste potatoes and carrots to feed the geese and swans and help reduce the numbers feeding on their fields.

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  5. Pinks are not totally reliant on sugar beet, yes they feed on it wit; enthusiasm in Norfolk but there are many other crops or crops wastes they feed on. In most of the country they feed on cereal stubbles (and increasingly maize stubble) , especially unsprayed cereal stubble, and grass, particularly in late winter. There are most likely in excess of half a million Pinkfooted geese wintering in the UK of which 20-30% are in Norfolk/ eastern England. Of more concern is that the increasing population may start to do serious damage to the vegetation of their artic breeding grounds, leading to possible starve outs during their mid summer flight less periods. I think snow geese in North America have started to have / cause problems in this way.

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  6. You can apply this analogy to a wide variety of species in the UK, what you call ‘farmland birds’ being a good example, they benefited from our inability to maximize the harvest. That doesn’t happen today, our agriculture is so technology advanced, that we as a species have warped away from nature at a frightening rate.

    Our understanding of nature is pretty limited too, yes we dish-out copy and paste degrees and if you’re lucky get a pretty cushy job or appear on national TV, but what we have created is a conservation industry for us – it’s a money spinner.

    What we are not prepared to do is hand over control of the habitat back to nature. What’s the RSPB strap-line? – Giving nature a home? – They should try it!

    And there’s the contradiction, the geese as a species are benefiting from our discards. With our rewilding project we don’t try to second-guess nature, it’s a dammed lot smarter than we are. Right from the start we said “it’s yours, get on with it”. Not many individuals or businesses can afford to do that at this level; but it is the only solution though if you seek a balanced ecosystem.

    Whatever you think of the many rewilding views you need to step back from all this white noise and realistically judge from your personal situation what is possible and what is not – and don't believe the hype!

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    1. You are continually informing us of how wonderful your farm is Thomas but despite repeated invitations to do so you never give out any details or show any evidence so we are just expected to...er, believe the hype.

      It gets a bit boring hearing your reflex (and often irrelevant) condemnations of the RSPB. It may not be perfect and there may be things it could do better but i think that most of us know from our own personal experience that it does indeed give nature a home in many parts of the country and many species continue to thrive in this country in large part as a result of the work of the RSPB and other conservation organisations.

      If you are doing something that is benefitting nature that's brilliant - please show us and tell us what, but you will probably be a good deal more persuasive if you abandon your pretence that you are the only person who knows anything about anything and that everyone else is a 'plank' with a 'cut and paste degree'.

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  7. The geese standing on the ridges in the pic are not in a failed potato crop but in one that has been desiccated before lifting - I suppose the wet 'ole might be considered a failure or, in some arable areas, a steep-sided valley. Humans don't eat potato haulm but it is possible to eat sugar beet tops. I have never done so - although I have eaten sea beet tops from a beach in Anglesey. Chard is better, but there wasn't any on the beach.

    It is a very long time since I was compelled to grow sugar beet - before the Allscott factory closed in fact. The only point in growing it was as a demo crop to show farmers what wonderful varieties of triploid monogerm beet The Firm had for sale, completely free of bolters that we had rogued-out by hand the day before. The farm workers hated it. We had a single row harvester - or "that ****ing getter", in local parlance - and topping had to be done using a forage flail machine. This needed to be very accurate to minimise the volume of tops left on the beet, for which there was a payment deduction. The trick was to flail the leaves off while hardly scalping the root. This meant that a very uniform seedbed was required, and very slow drillingly to minimise bounce. Even so, variation between plants made an even topping very difficult. The consensus was that the whole operation was a complete PITA. We never saw any geese.

    All that aside - there is no doubt that sugar beet is a very lucrative crop for farmers to grow and the sugar produced supports the livelihoods of a very large number of people beyond the farm gate, in dental surgeries and on the telly, and by-products are usefully recycled as cattle feeds and liming products. Fresh tops could be fed to cattle, or ensiled, but in general, cattle and beet have become separated by specialisation and intensification.

    Beyond that there are many negatives associated with sugar beet - of which the amount of soil damage inevitable from such weighty machinery use concerns me muchly - to produce a food ingredient that is completely unneccessary for humans.

    There is a good examination of the wider issues here: http://www.farminguk.com/KnowledgeCentre/Sugar-Shift-Six-Ideas-for-a-Healthier-and-Fairer-Food-System_792.html

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  8. I have always disliked the strap-line "Giving nature a home". For start, it's so patronising, and secondly, it tacitly states that nature had no home until we started finding them one.

    Of course, nature had a home - and a legitimate one - until we started wrecking it for them all.

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  9. I had also heard (cf trapit) that some goose populations, vastly expanded by extra food on southern farms in the winter were damaging the arctic. That was in N America. So, unfortunately, I'm not sure increasing populations here is a good thing, especially as the arctic needs all the help it can get at the moment. Did you see 'The Last Igloo' documentary on BBC?

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  10. I have always loved "pinkies" and the first time I saw them massed in Norfolk nearly 50 years ago I was hooked and the magic music a flock in flight makes. Nowadays there are far more of them yet here in mid Wales that music is one of the autumn and winter sounds I miss most. To misquote Paul Whitehouse:- Aren't birds brilliant!

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