The first of the winter’s geese are here and the morning sky echoes with their calls, as long skeins move between overnight roosts and daytime feeding grounds. These are Pink-footed Geese, newly arrived from breeding areas in Iceland and eastern Greenland, and their numbers will continue to grow over the coming weeks. Virtually the whole of the Icelandic and Greenland breeding populations winter in the UK, some 250,000 or so birds and representing at least 85% of the World population. The only other breeding population can be found on Svalbard and individuals from there winter in The Netherlands and, increasingly, Belgium.
These Pink-footed Geese will have arrived in Scotland several weeks ago, the arrival there continuing through into the middle of October, before most filter south through staging areas to favoured wintering grounds. The bulk of the population winters either in Lancashire or East Anglia, and Norfolk itself is a very important county for this winter migrant. The latest WeBS report, published by the British Trust for Ornithology, shows that the Wash and the North Norfolk coast currently supports some 59% of the UK wintering population.
The geese are attracted by the combination of undisturbed roosting sites and daytime feeding areas. Initially, the geese wintered and fed on saltmarsh, feeding on grasses and herbs on the short saltmarsh sward. More recently the birds have taken advantage of the food available on areas of arable land and pasture, with sugar beet tops and waste potatoes a favoured food. Such choice does bring a small amount of conflict with landowners if the geese move from the harvested beet fields to feed on growing crops elsewhere. This can happen if the geese suffer high levels of disturbance when feeding on the beet, so landowners often grow the sugar beet away from footpaths and busy roads; this benefits both the landowner and the geese, which may go some way to explaining why the population has increased over recent years.
To me, it is the movement of pink-feet between roosting and feeding sites that is the most evocative part of the Norfolk winter. To hear an approaching flight of geese, which first appear as a distant smudge on the skyline but which turns into distinct skeins as they approach, is truly magical. Equally magical is the sight of a huge flock, many hundreds strong, feeding across one of the larger coastal fields. To scan across these with a pair of binoculars reveals an army of individuals all feeding on the waste tops of beet. In some ways it is a shame that they are only here for part of the year but I suppose that if they were here all year round then their magical charm would become commonplace.