History: The first recorded reference to White-fronted Geese we could find on Orkney would seem to be Baikie & Heddle (1848) who referred to the species as an occasional visitor. It is an extraordinary fact that even at that time, the geese were feeding on reclaimed pasture and cereal stubble, a habit which continues to the present. Tudor (1883) reported “The Greylag Goose, the Bean Goose, the White-fronted Goose, the Barnacle Goose and the Brent Goose are all visitors, of which the first and the last two are the most abundant” (Groundwater 1974). However, the detailed account of Harvie-Brown & Buckley (1891) states “from recent accounts. quite the commonest of all geese on Orkney, a regular winter visitor, usually at Harray Loch”. This has been taken by some to signify large numbers were present, which need not necessarily be the case, but the original statement was qualified when they cite their informant, Mr Fortescue as saying “they are extremely local, apparently keeping to the basins of the lochs of Stenness, Harray, Boardhouse, etc.” Importantly, the largest flock seen by Fortescue consisted of 50 birds, “their number usually being from 6 or 7 up to 30” and intriguingly they were to be seen feeding “in new grass fields, stubble fields and newly sown fields”.
Harvie-Brown & Buckley (1891) continue “Mr Cameron of Burghar House (HY3427) also informs us that the White-fronted Goose is very common about certain lochs in that neighbourhood, and he has shot many specimens”. This account is repeated by Saunders (1899), Berry (1939), Baxter & Rintoul (1953) and Groundwater (1974). Berry (1939) adds that “observers in this area report no appreciable change in status during the last 25 years” (i.e. 1914-1939). Atkinson-Willes (1963) reported that a few may winter on the islands, but provides no information on numbers at that time.
Balfour (1972) stated the race was a common passage migrant in both spring and autumn and “that small wintering flocks are almost regular”. Counts reported in the Orkney Bird Report (1974-1982) indicate the presence of two regular wintering flocks on the islands, which are supplemented by large numbers of migrants which swell local numbers during migration influx periods. Most of these occur in October and April, when birds are reported from a much wider variety of sites, both on Mainland Orkney and on the outer islands, such as Eynhallow, Copinsay, Sanday, South Ronaldsay and North Ronaldsay (see records in Groundwater 1974).
R&O provided counts from Tankerness Loch from 1962/63, reporting a “sharp decline since 1974/75 appears to have been a combination of reclamation of moorland used by the geese, and an increase in shooting in the area. Both have involved an increase in human activity and consequence disturbance. The decline may be linked with the increase in Caithness”.
Status: Probably now abandoned as a regular wintering site, but formerly of regional importance (R&O 42). Numbered between 50 and 100 in the 1960s, there has been a continuous decline in the numbers of birds using this set of wintering areas. Variable numbers in the 1980s, these fell rapidly in the 1990s and apparently deserted for a while as a regular feeding area in recent years, the decline at this site seemed to match an increase in the regular wintering flock on Stronsay. The reasons for this change in wintering site remain unknown. These geese have also been seen on Sanday. The geese are still occasionally seen in this area of the Mainland, perhaps suggesting this was a preferred site, despite their movement to Stronsay and other areas.
Maximum winter counts:
Breeding success: No figure provided because of the small flock size and few data.
Feeding sites and habitat: Generally the farmland areas around the Loch of Tankerness are used for feeding, although the flock formerly ranged widely within the parishes of Holm and Toab. There are records of birds feeding at Swart Howe (HY510033) in an area of Calluna and Juncus-dominated rough pasture and improved leys with some temporary standing water. The geese formerly used areas of marginal moorland, rough pasture and reseeded grassland in this area of east Mainland Orkney, but there has been considerable land claim of semi-heath areas and rough pasture about the fringes of the areas used by the geese which may have precipitated their departure from the vicinity.
Roosting sites: Loch of Tankerness (HY5109), also reported from Swart Howe (HY510033).
Habitat change: R&O considered that moorland reclamation was one of the causes of the declines in number of the flock in the 1970s, but there has been gradual agricultural ‘improvement’ of semi-natural habitats.
Aircraft disturbance: Disturbance from aircraft from the nearby civil airport at Kirkwall, which probably results in regular disturbance, although the regular nature of the disturbance and its orientation may enable some level of habituation. There has been a significant increase in air traffic since the 1980s associated with oil-related activities and the general increase in air traffic generally.
Hunting disturbance: R&O reported an increase in shooting in the area and subsequence disturbance, but there is no recent information on this.
Agricultural disturbance: R&O reported increase in moorland reclamation but there is no recent information.
Site safeguards or disturbance refuge: None
SNH Natural Heritage Zones/Area: Orkney and Northern Caithness
Threats: Generally there has been little disturbance in the area, apart from that from regular farm work, and no attempts to drive geese from fields. There do not appear to be any problems associated with shooting. Continuing land claim may have contributed to the temporary abandoning of this site, although assuming it is the same flock using Stronsay, they seem to be able to settle at alternative feeding areas.
Linkages with other sites:
1. A metal ringed goose, ringed as a juvenile in Sarqaqdalen on the south side of the Nussuaq peninsula on 25th July 1955 was recovered near Kirkwall on 29th October 1956.
2. A leg ringed and collared bird 9KU was ringed in November 1985 at Wexford where it wintered 1985/86-1988/89, it wintered on Islay 1989/90 until 1995/96 up until 15th December 1996. It was seen 7th and 11th March 1997 at Tankerness, before being seen back on Islay the following winter where it wintered from 1998/99 until 2000/01.
Baikie, W.B. & Heddle, M. (1848) Historia Naturalis Orcadensis. Paterson, Edinburgh.
Baxter, E.V. & Rintoul, L.J. (1953) The Birds of Scotland. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh.
Berry, J. (1939) The Status and Distribution of Wild Geese and Wild Duck in Scotland. International
Wildfowl Inquiry: Volume II. University Press, Cambridge.
Booth, C.J., Cuthbert, M.F. & Reynolds, P. (1984) The Birds of Orkney. The Orkney Press, Kirkwall.
Groundwater, W. (1974) Birds and Mammals of Orkney. Kirkwall.
Harvie-Brown, J.A. & Buckley, T.E. (1891) A Vertebrate Fauna of the Orkney Islands. Edinburgh.
Saunders, H. (1899) An Illustrated Manual of British Birds. 1st edition. London.
Tudor, J.R. (1883) The Orkneys and Shetlands. Stanford. London.