Helena Douglas has pinkfooted geese in her sights in the dramatic Aberdeenshire countryside
It is early morning in Aberdeenshire and as the first fingers of light spread across the horizon the haunting, high-pitched cry of Anser brachyrhynchus, the pinkfooted goose, fills the air. I am hunkered down behind camouflage netting in a ditch at the edge of a large flat field. It is cold and damp, but the prospect of a good morning’s shooting is on the cards and the geese, our target today, are on their way.
From late September to early October these pinkish grey birds with dark heads and necks arrive from their breeding grounds in Iceland to overwinter in England and Scotland. Small family groups make the 800-mile, four-day flight, with the vast majority arriving before the middle of October. They’ll stay until spring before they make their return journey to Iceland to breed and rear their young in inaccessible river gorges, where they are safe from predators. They are productive birds; the female lays a clutch of around six eggs and in a good season up to four young should survive.
“An alarm call wakes me around two hours before sunrise and the group bundles into Andy’s Land Rover”
Aberdeenshire has the largest population of pinkfooted geese of any county in Scotland, with most of the birds congregating on three lochs where they roost at night. The Loch of Strathbeg is home to a population of around 45,000, Meikle Loch has up to 22,000 and the Loch of Skene around 18,000. Shooting them is permissible thanks to the fact that they are on the quarry list. However the shooting season runs only from September 1st until January 31st and in Scotland the birds may not be shot on Sundays.
This concentration of numbers is due to the county’s farming practices that provide the birds with a reliable source of food. Most of the arable land in the area is used to grow spring barley for the whisky industry. During the winter months these fields are full of barley heads that have either been shed before the harvest or left after harvesting. The rest of the land is grass, grown to feed Scotland’s world famous Aberdeen Angus cattle. To the pinkfoot, which feeds on grain, winter cereals, potatoes, root crops and grass, these fields are an eternally well-stocked larder and they move from their night-time roosts on the lochs to the feeding areas at dawn. Feeding flocks can travel up to 30km and the same roosts and feeding areas are used year after year.
The arrival of the geese signals the start of a winter of intensive work for Andy Richardson, my goose shooting guide, a former gamekeeper with 16 years of guiding experience under his belt. To provide his clients with the best shooting possible he drives up to 200 miles a day to find out where the geese are feeding. Being creatures of habit, once the geese find a field of food they are likely to return to it the following day provided it can sustain them. Richardson’s in-depth knowledge of their feeding habits gives him a clear idea of how much available food is left and whether the birds are likely to return or not. For a goose shoot to be successful, this knowledge is key.