FSC | Field Studies Council

Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

Islay – Island of Geese

As a naturalist I try to arrange my holidays so that I can visit areas rich in plants, animals and other wildlife and for the last thirty years or so I have been exploring the natural history of the islands around the British coast. Like everyone else I have to juggle life and work but most years I manage to take a week off in early May. That’s when the big decisions start. Do I go for bluebells and seabirds on Skomer or the corncrakes and stunning coastal scenery of Coll. I usually manage another holiday later in the summer; sometime during the period from June into early August. So is it the seabird cities of Shetland, the plants of the Outer Hebrides machair, Scottish Primrose on Orkney, perhaps the eagles and otters on Mull? These are difficult decisions but there is one holiday that is easy. I like to take a week off around the October half-term and at that time of year there’s only one place to go – Islay.

Islay was one of the first islands I visited and I fell in love with the place. I went to see the geese but discovered that the island has so much more to offer. It was in the early 1980’s and at that time there was a controversy raging on the island based on three of the island staples – geese, peat and malt whisky. One of the distilleries planned to cut peat from one of the extensive island bogs to produce their version of the distinct peaty Islay malt whisky. It’s used when they dry the malt (germinated barley) over low peat fires and the peat infuses the whisky with a delicious smoky taste. The fact that there are eight distilleries on the island had nothing to do with the decision to visit the island in the first place (well only a small part). 

The peat that the distillery planned to cut was from an area (Duich Moss) that was used as a roosting site by some of the thousands of Greenland White-fronted Geese that spent the winter on Islay. During the period from 1950 to 1980 the population of this sub-species had declined by about 25% largely due to loss of wintering habitat and was of great conservation concern. The entire Greenland population of White-fronted Goose winters in the UK and Ireland and Islay is one of the two most important wintering sites (the other is the Wexford Slobs area in Ireland) and protection of Duich Moss was important. After a bit of wrangling the issue was resolved and peat was cut from another site. The Greenland White-fronted Geese flourished on Islay and in Ireland and reached a peak of around 35,000 by the late 1990’s. Sadly the population started to decline again and the population is now back down to around 10,000 of which around 5,000 winter on Islay – they’re a good reason to visit Islay in October.

Islay is also the main wintering site for the Greenland population of Barnacle Geese. Once again the whole of this population winters along the west coast of Britain and Ireland and Islay has about 50% of the population wintering there. The population of this species was also very low by the 1960’s and 1970’s but is now doing rather better than is the Greenland White-fronted Goose. The population is up to about 80,000, so that means there are up to 40,000 of this species on Islay in the winter – that’s a lot of geese! When they first come back to Islay in early October they hang around in large flocks and the sight and sound of thousands of geese flying in to roost in the evening is one of the UK’s top wildlife spectacles.

When they are at roost they are easily spooked – by passing eagles for example. Both Golden Eagles and, now, White-tailed Sea Eagles breed on Islay. The Sea Eagles are recent arrivals following a successful re-introduction programme in Scotland and they regularly predate geese at one of two main roost sites on Islay. Other raptors abound on Islay too. I usually see Peregrine, Merlin, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard and Hen Harrier – on one memorable occasion I saw a Merlin harassing a Peregrine which was mobbing a Hen Harrier which was a bit concerned about the Golden Eagle that happened to be flying over. Oh and at the same time there were a few Chough and Ravens flying around. Add in the waders thronging the shorelines, the wintering Scaup and Slavonian Grebes on Loch Indaal, Eiders, Wigeon, all three Divers (Red-throated, Great-northern and on a lucky day Black-throated), Otters, Grey and Common Seals, Red Deer and so much more and perhaps you can see why a visit to Islay in October is an easy choice. And I haven’t even mentioned the landscape; beautiful beaches, hills covered in the golds and browns of autumn and a warming dram to finish the day – I can hardly wait. 

Robin Sutton is the FSC Biodiversity Training Officer. He’s been running trips to various Scottish islands since 1992 in conjunction with Martyn Jamieson (formerly head of Kindrogan Field Centre and now a Crofter on South Uist).

Book on the Islay course now.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015