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Icicles and poo – studying geese in Bulgaria

Anne HarrisonIt’s week six of my trip now and the last few weeks have been eventful. Unfortunately it’s not all good news. The cannon netting team left empty handed on 2 February after a month of setting and re-setting nets in the hope of a successful catch.

Too warm…

As I talked about in my January post only very small numbers of geese were here during the first half of the month. Luckily the onset of colder weather marked the arrival of more birds, so the odds of a successful catch looked set to improve. Nets were dug up and re-laid in a different field – a known favourite feeding area and the location of a successful catch last year. Things were looking up and the geese came within only a few metres of the nets, but no closer…

Then came the cold…

Heavy rain, followed by blizzards, strong gales and extremely cold temperatures down to minus 18 degrees – so cold that the spray from huge waves crashing onto the Black Sea cliffs at Tyulenovo froze into huge icicles! Likewise, the cannon nets froze solid. We awaited a thaw, but this came too late, after the team had returned to UK soil. Digging up those cannons and packing away the nets in the howling icy wind was somewhat exhilarating, despite the fact we didn’t catch.

Fingers, toes and wings crossed for better luck next winter.

The good news is that fitting tags is just one of many aspects to the fieldwork we’re doing for the Safe Grounds for Red-breasts project. I’m here to make sure the methods are put into practice properly, so that we collect good scientific data on which to base conservation measures.

One aspect is to learn how disturbance, particularly from hunting, affects their ecology. Hunting red-breasts is illegal, but greater white-fronted geese are legal quarry and, as the two species usually occur in mixed flocks, disturbance of one inevitably affects the other.

Studying how their distribution changes daily and over the course of the winter, and what types of crops they are selecting to eat, lets us quantify the factors that are important to geese, as well as the effects of disturbance. The data will also be used to map important areas for geese, which could be used as a tool to inform future development in the area, especially of wind turbines.

Goose poo

One of the best ways of looking at how many geese have used one area compared to another is to count their droppings! Because geese eating a particular stand of crop will poo at regular intervals, the number of droppings can be related to the time spent by geese in an area.

We’re using this simple method to get an idea of how much damage geese cause to winter wheat crops in the area. By preventing access to some plots using cages or ‘exclosures’ and leaving others open for grazing, we can compare the final harvest of the crop when exposed to different grazing pressures. Does heavy grazing lead to reduced yield?

We’re also looking at whether there is a correlation between goose use – again measured by counting poo – and proximity to wind turbines, to investigate whether geese avoid feeding in areas close to turbines.


Safe Ground for Redbreasts is a partnership between BSPB, WWT, RSPB, Kirilovi Ltd – an agricultural cooperative – and the Shabla Hunting and Angling Association. It has been made possible with the contribution of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Community (No. LIFE 09/NAT/BG/00023)