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.
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)?