Stephen Colton's Take on Nature: Greylag visitors and the flight of the wild geese

The greylag goose, Anser anser, is an orange-billed, bulky grey/brown goose, from which the Irish name gé ghlas, (grey goose) comes
Stephen Colton

AT THIS time of year, our ears and eyes are frequently drawn skyward by the expressive calls and vivid lines of wild geese or swans noisily winging their way through the sky, seeking new feeding and roosting sites.

Some days ago I observed a ‘wedge' of greylag geese above the village, their nasal cackling a welcome distraction from the gloomy day. Our domestic geese are descendants of these wild birds and many feral individuals remain all year.

Anser anser is an orange-billed, bulky grey/brown goose, from which the Irish name gé ghlas, (grey goose) comes. Our wintering flocks travel from Iceland to feed mostly on cereal stubble and roots on grasslands near the coast and inland.

Similar looking but scarcer species which keep company with the greylags in winter are pink-footed and Greenland white-fronted geese. The former is slighter smaller than the greylag with a darker brown head and neck, along with a dark beak. The white-fronted were traditionally known in Ireland as ‘bog geese' because of their preference for foraging on peatland but are now more commonly seen feeding on managed grasslands with sizeable flocks in the Wexford slobs and smaller numbers around Loughs Swilly and Foyle.

The prominent white ring around the base of the bill gives the bird its name, distinguishing it from the other grey geese. Another similar bird, the bean goose, is a much rarer visitor.

According to Boland and Crowe in 'An assessment of the distribution and range of Greylag (Icelandic-breeding & feral populations) in Ireland' (2008), most of our winter greylags seem to settle around the Lough Swilly and Foyle complex, with other flocks recorded at Loughs Neagh and Beg, Dundalk Bay and Strangford Lough. These numbers are supplemented by resident populations throughout the island.

The use of the word ‘lag' as part of the bird's name (grey + lag) has long been a puzzle with many believing it was used to signify last or lateness; the grey goose which was slow to migrate behind other species back to their breeding grounds.

However, others argue that lag is an old dialect word for goose, noting English amateur ornithologist George Rowley's observation in his Ornithological Miscellany (1876) that the call or cry of ‘Lag'em, Lag'em', was used by drivers to urge along flocks of tame geese.

Greylags were held sacred by the Romans, because their honking calls warned of the invading Gauls in Rome, in 390 BC, with annual commemorations in the city thereafter celebrating the geese in a magnificent procession.

Although Geese have featured in the legend and lore of Ireland, especially in tales of Cúchulainn and Mad Sweeney, the term ‘wild geese' is probably most associated here with Irish soldiers who left to serve in the European armies of the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous of these was the departure of the Irish Jacobite army under the command of Patrick Sarsfield from Ireland to France, after the Treaty of Limerick in October 1691.

This began what became known as, ‘The Flight of the Wild Geese', something Yeats references in his poem September 1913 when he writes of the birds as an allusion to those Catholic armies who fled to Europe. Reflecting on the move away from an old Ireland built on romantic ideals, he laments,

'Was it for this the wild geese spread?The grey wing upon every tide?'?

As we enter this new year, let us hope the departure northwards of the greylags from our shores in springtime, will coincide with a safer and happier time of living for us all. Bhliain nua sásta.

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