Essex Wildlife Trust and bird group seek net gains for geese

Essex Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers and North Thames Gull Group members gather at Blue House F

Essex Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers and North Thames Gull Group members gather at Blue House Farm nature reserve, near Maldon, for work in the brent goose ringing project. Picture: JOHN GRANT - Credit: Archant

At Blue House Farm, near Maldon, conservation rings out for iconic brent geese.

Paul Roper, of the North Thames Gull Group, watches dark-bellied brent geese at Essex Wildlife Trus

Paul Roper, of the North Thames Gull Group, watches dark-bellied brent geese at Essex Wildlife Trust's Blue House Farm nature reserve. A ringing project is under way at the site to help brent goose conservation. Picture: JOHN GRANT - Credit: Archant

Against the stunning backdrop of vast coastal grazing marshes beside the almost impossible intricacy and wild beauty of an East Anglian estuary, a tense battle of wits played out like some ornithological equivalent of One Man and His Dog.

It wasn’t so much sheep and sheepdog, or even cat and mouse - it was more birder and goose. On the grasslands of Essex Wildlife Trust’s Blue House Farm nature reserve, near Maldon, David Low was the goose-gatherer, the goose-whisperer. Looking on, ready to spring into action, was the goose gang of highly skilled, vastly experienced, fully trained and strictly licensed bird-ringers and their team of volunteer helpers looked on.

Slowly, expertly, dedicated Essex birder Mr Low was trying to gently manoeuvre not sheep into a pen but more than 1,000 dark-belled brent geese into a tiny area of marsh where a strategically placed net had been set to spring over them, fired electronically at just the right moment by a ringer several hundred yards away. The moment never came. Not this time. The geese, in a blur of whirring wings and a chorus of the soft brent calls that are so synonymous with East Anglian estuaries in winter, headed out over the grey expanse of the River Crouch. Away, and out of sight, for now.

A few days before, however, things were different. Eighteen grass-grazing brent geese had been caught and carefully fitted with individually identifiable coloured leg rings, each lightweight band having its own code of letters and numbers - the first of their kind to be ringed in Essex for about 40 years. Vigilant observers can now spot them and ring-read wherever the birds may roam, within the Crouch complex, further afield during their Continental stop-overs or even on the immense tundra of their breeding grounds in northern Siberia that are reached after an epic, jaw-dropping northward migration of more than 2,500 miles.

A dark-bellied brent goose is held before it is ringed and released in the Blue House Farm project.

A dark-bellied brent goose is held before it is ringed and released in the Blue House Farm project. Picture: MARIA MAK - Credit: Archant

This is an awe-inspiring conservation project, carried out under strict British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) authorisation by ringers who are BTO-licenced. It is a partnership involving Essex Wildlife Trust and the bird-ringing experts of the North Thames Gull Group (NTGG) - but it has its origins in rubbish, and lots of it.

NTGG stalwart Paul Roper, by profession a project manager for the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, explained that the group had been studying gulls on the gigantic Pitsea landfill site in metropolitan Essex for many years, but the site was now closing. “The study has involved about 20 years of ringing with metal rings and about 15 years of ringing with colour rings,” he said. “It’s been carried out to answer the question of what will happen to the gulls when the landfill site is no longer operating and now we are into the data analysis stage to establish that.

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“With that in mind we were looking for a new project as it would have been a shame not to make good use of all the expertise that has been built up and all the equipment we have - this partnership with Essex Wildlife Trust enables us to put all that to really good use for a really good conservation cause.”

Relatively few brent geese had been ringed in the UK - more had been ringed in Europe, said Mr Roper. Much was known about some aspects of the species, such as longevity and migratory routes, but there were still many questions to answer to help brent goose conservation. “What we don’t know at the moment are things such as what the individual movements around as estuary such as the Crouch, is there very much flock interchange between separate wintering groups, what are the timings of movements,” he said.

Experienced bird-ringer David Dutton, left, with one of the Blue House Farm dark-bellied brent geese

Experienced bird-ringer David Dutton, left, with one of the Blue House Farm dark-bellied brent geese before its release. Picture: MARIA MAK - Credit: Archant

“All ringing data is shared internationally and so all ours will be on an international database. Everything we do is geared to helping conservation. Any monitoring of brent, and any other taxa, is of value as it gives you a chance to understand species and to help if things go wrong for them.

“For me personally and the group as a whole it’s become a real challenge. We put a lot of time and effort in and it’s definitely obsessional - my driver is that there is a real conservation imperative to this sort of research but I also love to catch birds that are difficult to catch.

“We’ve had a fantastic start to this project with 18 birds ringed and we have the drive to push on now in winters to come. Fifty or 100 brent would be ideal but even 20 to 30 would be wonderful and the project is definitely in for the long term.”

Mr Roper paid tribute to the assistance given by Mr Low, who lives in Rayleigh and has dedicated most of his birding life to studying ringed brent geese and black-tailed godwits on the Essex estuaries and further afield. “We simply could not be doing this without him,” said Mr Roper. “We would not have known enough about the local movements of the geese and it would have taken us years to find that out, and where the best places to set our nets were. He’s been absolutely fantastic.”

Harry Smith, warden of Essex Wildlife Trust's Blue House Farm nature reserve, holds a brent goose be

Harry Smith, warden of Essex Wildlife Trust's Blue House Farm nature reserve, holds a brent goose before it is ringed and released. Picture: MARIA MAK - Credit: Archant

Harry Smith, Essex Wildlife Trust’s warden at Blue House Farm, said the information gleaned from the brent geese project would be “invaluable” as it would help to inform reserve management decisions.

“There is something really special about brent geese - wherever you hear them you instantly think of the Essex marshes as they are so much part of them in winter and here at Blue House Farm we are very proud of them. It’s a place that is very popular with birdwatchers and photographers and we hope that any sightings of ringed brent geese will be reported as every sighting will help us build a picture of how the geese are using the area.”

To have ringed even 18 brent seems astonishing, given that the two cannon nets used offer only small capturing areas - one of only 15 square metres and another of 25 metres by 15 metres. Mr Roper has used his considerable artistic talents to paint brent geese plumages onto wildfowling decoys of pink-footed geese, and these can help to attract flocks to within net range. However, the capture zones seem pin-prick tiny compared to the vastness of the Crouch’s estuarine complex.

“It’s a waiting game, a game of patience,” said Mr Roper. The ringers have patience in abundance and they’ll be back in subsequent winters, their methods refined and their determination to help brent goose conservation redoubled.

Essex birdwatcher David Low, an avid reader of leg-rings on brent geese and black-tailed godwits, lo

Essex birdwatcher David Low, an avid reader of leg-rings on brent geese and black-tailed godwits, looks for brent geese at Essex Wildlife Trust's Blue House Farm nature reserve. Picture: JOHN GRANT - Credit: Archant

More information about the North Thames Gull Group can be found at www.ntgg.org.uk/

Information about Blue House Farm and all Essex Wildlife Trust reserves can be found at essexwt.org.uk/

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