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Dr Maarten Loonen: ‘Geese deserve better’

11 December 2013

Goose researcher Maarten Loonen of the University of Groningen thinks it is unfair and a shame that the public discussion about geese always concentrates on the damage that the birds cause agriculture. The high numbers of geese are actually a result of the type of agriculture practised in the Netherlands. What seems to be happening is that complaining about geese generates cash whereas positive signals do not suit the complainers. Geese deserve a better image.

‘The numbers of geese in the Netherlands have increased dramatically. In 1980 about half a million geese spent the winter here, migrating to the north during the summer; in 2012 it was nearly two million. Breeding geese, which spend the entire year in the Netherlands, were completely absent for decades but are now resettling and their numbers are increasing strongly. The estimate for 2012 is that there were 600,000 of them.

Success story

It is important not to lose sight of why there are currently so many geese, in summer and in winter. The reason is the heavy fertilization and other developments in industrial agriculture that have significantly improved the goose’s food resources. Whereas they used to have to migrate north with the green wave of spring grass with high protein content, currently that protein content is also present in the summer and the grass is kept short by intensive mowing and grazing. This development is behind the success story of the goose. Geese are intelligent and able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. If necessary they will travel long distances to find the best spots to feed and that is what we are facing in the Netherlands.

Complaining financially worthwile

The views on wild geese are strongly divergent, depending on whether you are a farmer, hunter, nature lover or nature protector. Discussions are difficult, but there is a Wildlife Compensation Fund that compensates farmers for damage to their fields. Unfortunately that damage compensation system has evolved into a mechanism that in practice rewards complaints about geese with compensation and thus makes complaining financially worthwhile. A side effect of this is a kind of character assassination of geese, which are usually mentioned in the same breath as damage. The contribution by parts of the agricultural sector to the current situation is deliberately ignored, and in fact public opinion is manipulated to maintain the compensation mechanism. It is a real shame that geese in the Netherlands are primarily regarded as a problem.

It is an indisputable fact that geese eat grass and that their behaviour can damage agribusiness. Just how significant that damage is exactly is a lot more difficult to ascertain. Sometimes geese feed in fields that are not actually being used by the farmers at the time and so that does not necessarily have to be regarded as damage. What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of euros have been paid as compensation to areas that had little or no damage, simply because goose policy paid some of the farmers in advance for “goose care”.

Hunting

Hunters will never be the final solution for the problem. Hunting geese actually stimulates them to concentrate in certain areas, which increases the amount of damage in those places. When they are not hunted the geese spread out over the available areas and the resulting damage per area also declines – often past the point where you could in all reasonableness speak of damage. That was what we hoped to achieve with the Ganzenakkoord, the ‘goose agreement ’ whereby farmers and nature organizations have agreed that geese can be culled in the summer but not in the winter.

Industrial estate

In a country as overcrowded as the Netherlands, everything is categorized and regulated. Anything that does not follow our plan is quickly seen as a problem. Geese are simply extraordinary opportunists in an agricultural setting that is increasingly turning into an open air industrial estate. Meadow birds have vanished from the high-productivity meadows as a result of the intensive mowing policy and if we chase away the geese we will be left with a kind of dead green plain where nothing else lives. That’s the equivalent of banning nature from our living environment.’

Dr Maarten Loonen is university lecturer in Arctic Ecology at the University of Groningen. His expertise is in biology, ecology of the Polar Regions, geese, migration.

Last modified:28 November 2017 4.42 p.m.
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