Wild Geese of Dumfries & Galloway

Dumfries and Galloway is a wonderful place to see geese as here you can find six of the seven species of geese in the UK.

The geese to be found are:

  • Pink footed geese
  • Greylag geese
  • Greenland white fronted geese
  • Light-bellied brent geese
  • Barnacle geese
  • Canada geese

Most of these geese are migratory and arrive in September/October, spending the winter here until February/March, before returning to northern climes to breed.Many of them spend the summerat their breeding grounds in theArctic; Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and Svalbard. The Canada goose however has been introduced from North America and is resident, as are most of the Greylag geese population.

The geese can be divided into two types, grey geese ‘anser’ and black and white geese ‘branta’ and these forms are notated by their scientific names. The anser geese include pink footed geese, Greenland white fronted geese and greylag geese. The branta species are barnacle geese, Canada geese and light-bellied brent geese.

Types of Geese – ‘Anser’ species

Pink footed geese (above) Anser brachyrhynchus are the earliest geese to migrate, with non-breeding birds arriving from Icelandin late August/September. They make a distinctive high pitched ‘squealing’ call as they fly over in v-shaped skeins. The population of 500,000 birds winter in the UK, with birds spending the night out on the vast mudflats and sandbanks of the Solway Firth and flying to inland fields and saltmarsh (merse) at dawn to graze all day, before flying back out at dusk. Wigtown Bay is a great place to see large numbers of pink footed geese.Head to RSPB Crook of Baldoon bird reserve to watch them and other species of wildfowl.

Another grey goose is the Greylag goose (below) Anser anser. This is a distinctive goose, due to its big orange beak and pink legs. Most greylags in the UK are resident but there is a small population of migratory birds which are difficult to tell from the resident geese. They are however far more flighty and prone to human disturbance.

The rarest goose we have in Dumfries and Galloway is the Greenland white-fronted goose Anser albifronsflavirostris. It undertakes a fascinating migration via Iceland to Greenland where it breeds in remote areas. Tracking by expert researchers here in Dumfries and Galloway have revealed a huge amount of data. Its main winter residence in Dumfries and Galloway is West Freugh and Loch Ken and good places to see them are RSPB Ken-Dee marshes and NTS Threave. It is a difficult bird to see closely as it is flighty and stays away from humans. However, when seen up close it is a beautiful bird with a conspicuous white patch at the base of its bill, and black stripes on its flanks.

Types of Geese – ‘Branta’ species

Brent geese arrive in October. In Dumfries &Galloway, we get the Light-bellied brent geese Branta berniclahrota. This is the only place this species winter in Britain, and they are all in West Galloway. The rest of the population winter in Ireland. The dark-bellied brent geese are a different population, which breed in Russia. The light bellied population are fascinating as they migrate over 5000km to Canada to breed. This is the longest migration of all the geese species in the UK. In winter, brent geese feed on eel grass in shallow lochs and bays and can be best seen in Garlieston Harbour, Loch Ryan at the Wig and Stranraer Harbour.

The Barnacle geese (above) Branta leucopsiswe see in Dumfries and Galloway are from the Svalbard population. They are very important as the entire population winter on the Solway Firth. Last winter they were hit hard by Avian Influenza which killed a third of the 40,000 strong population. This highlights the importance of protecting these wonderful birds. They were particularly vulnerable to bird flu because of their highly sociable behaviour. They gather in flocks of thousands, which is an incredible natural spectacle to see. Barnacle geese get their name from an old myth. To explain their disappearance in summer, it was thought that they turned into goose barnacles which are black and white in colour. They were then thought to hatch out into geese. This meant they were considered as fish rather than fowl and therefore it was decreed by the church that they could be eaten at Lent.

Barnacle geese can be seen in fields on the coastline of the Solway Firth from late September until April. WWT Caerlaverock Wetland Centre was set up to protect this species and is a good place to watch them, as are RSPB Mersehead and Caerlaverock NNR (NatureScot).

Canada geese (above) Branta canadensis often get confused with barnacle geese as they look similar. They are however a bigger bird with different facial markings and their body is brown rather than grey. They are not seen in large flocks like barnacle geese and have a very different call, which is louder and ‘honking’! Introduced from North America they do not migrate and are therefore resident through the summer, breeding in wet areas, where their yellow goslings can sometimes be seen. In winter they gather together in large flocks on pools, ponds and lochs.

Further resources:

For more information, follow the Galloway Glens blog https://gallowayglens.org/projects/greenland-white-fronted-geese/

Bird migration atlas: https://migrationatlas.org

The Wild Goose Festival began two years ago and is a celebration of the return of the wild geese to Dumfries and Galloway. Inclusive family-friendly events take place across Dumfries and Galloway during the October holidays. Please see the website for more information: https://thestove.org/wild-goose-festival

Author: Faith Hillier, Community Officer
Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere