Greylag goose (Anser anser)

SizeWingspan: 149 - 168 cm
Body length: 74 - 84 cm

The greylag goose is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) in the UK.

If you see a wild grey goose in the UK outside the winter months, it will almost certainly be the greylag goose (Anser anser). The only other ‘wild’ goose seen throughout the year, and the only one apart from the greylag to breed in Britain, is the Canada goose, an introduced species. The greylag is a big bird with broad wings, and looks heavy in flight. From a distance, the birds appear a uniform grey-brown but a closer view reveals more subtle tones of brown and grey. The birds also have barring on back, breast and neck. The underside of the tail is white. Birds from different parts of their range show slight variations in colouration. Siberian birds have a slightly lighter heads and paler fringes to the dark plumage on their backs. They also have bills which are pinker in colour than the orange bills of the European birds. Both subspecies, however, have dull pink feet and legs. Greylags are the ancestors of most domesticated geese, although the Chinese swan goose is descended from the wild swan goose found in eastern Asia.

Greylag geese are a migratory species and their breeding and wintering range extends across much of Europe and Asia. Greylags breed in Iceland, around the North Sea and Baltic coasts of Scandinavia, Finland and Northern Europe, and southwards through central Eastern Europe and western Russia as far south as the Black Sea. Winter populations range from the Iberian east coast, across southern Europe and Asia Minor, through the Himalayas and Thailand to the China Sea.

This species can be found in an extremely varied range of habitats, more than many other geese, in fact. Greylag geese frequent lakes and meres, brackish coastal waters, arable farmland and pasture, freshwater and saltwater marsh, and cereal fields including winter-grown fields.

In the UK, greylag geese breed from the beginning of April to May, laying usually five to eight eggs in a large nest amongst floating vegetation or hidden in reeds. The incubation period is about 28 days and, unlike many species of waterfowl, the male goose or gander stays with the family group. Geese, in fact, have a more cohesive family unit than ducks and both parents guard the goslings against attacks from other birds or predatory mammals. The greylag goose family continues to remain together throughout the year and will migrate from their wintering grounds as a group within a larger flock. Only when the adult birds are ready to establish a new breeding territory will the gander drive off the previous year’s young birds.

Geese are primarily grazing birds, although they also take grain, root crops and leafy vegetation. Geese have relatively short bills, and prefer pasture or meadows that are grazed by cattle or sheep. A flock of geese will work their away across the fields, nibbling the more nutritious growing shoots of the grass or cereal crop. Grass, by itself, is not particularly high in nutrients, and geese have to eat almost continuously in order to gain any nourishment from it. To allow these bulky birds to be able to take-off in an emergency, they process this grass at a remarkable rate. The birds defecate almost continuously whilst grazing so that their gut is not weighed down with food and they can still make a quick getaway if danger threatens.

Geese generally have been a human quarry species for centuries, and greylag geese are still shot in large numbers throughout their range. Although many birds are killed for sport, or to provide food, they are also shot due to the damage they can cause to crops by grazing in huge flocks. Furthermore, the birds’ populations suffered badly from the drainage of their wetland habitats during the middle of the 20th century and from the effects of industrial and agricultural pollution.

In recent years, greylag goose populations have been on the increase across Europe. The UK has a resident population thought to number a few hundred pairs, but the winter population swells to around 100,000 birds as flocks migrate from Iceland and northern Europe. Greylag geese enjoy protection in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) but can be shot during the wildfowling season between 1 September and 31 January. In December 2002, the Wetlands International Specialist Goose Group meeting in Spain expressed uncertainties about the status of the European greylag populations. Using current counting methods, it appears greylag numbers are slowly declining although they are still ‘stable’. Accurate figures for game bags are hard to obtain in many cases, but it has been suggested there may be problems with overshooting in some countries.

For more information on the greylag geese and other bird species:

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  1.  IUCN Red List (March, 2011)