The European stronghold of the Greenland white-fronted goose is Ireland, especially the Wexford Slobs. This is Europe’s rarest goose and the Slobs are its most important winter haunts. Today, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve hosts about two-thirds of Ireland’s approximately 12,000 white-fronts, which make up half the world population.
If you come here at either dawn or dusk in winter you can relish a real wildlife spectacle. As the Irish Times journalist Paddy Woodworth described it ‘You are likely to be astounded by the sight of huge flocks of geese shifting, in vast patterns alive with kinetic energy, to and from the sandbanks in the harbour where they roost at night.’ In the distance the birds sound like a ghostly vintage car rally, horns honking in the fog.
The Greenland white-fronted goose was only identified as a sub-species in the middle of the twentieth century, because of one of the pre-eminent naturalist of the day, Sir Peter Scott. He tells the story thus:
In the 1930s and 1940s the taxonomy of the Palaearctic White-fronted Geese was very confused, especially on those birds breeding in Greenland, whose wintering grounds were then unknown. I had received live hand-raised Whitefronts from West Greenland which had predominantly yellow bills and rather dark plumage. I had also noticed a description in a book by no less an authority than Payne-Galway, a normally reliable source, that the Whitefronts in Ireland had yellow bills.
A visit to Ireland by Scott confirmed that the White-fronts there were also dark coloured when he examined some that had been shot. The Second World War intervened but, by 1948 he and his colleague C.T. Dalgety had gathered enough evidence to propose a new race of Whitefront, quite distinct from the Russian geese, breeding west of the Greenland icecap and wintering in the British Isles, chiefly in Ireland.
This new race, the Greenland white-fronted goose was readily accepted by the ornithological world and in the years that followed extensive studies, including ringing helped expand the knowledge we have about them, following their migration paths through Iceland into Scotland, Ireland and a thin scattering into central Wales.
In Ireland the Greenland white-fronts had long been colloquially known in Ireland as the “bog goose”, wintering on open peatlands with little human presence. But during the 19th century this habitat was extensively drained and cut for turf, or converted to forestry but this all coincided, fortuitously, with the reclamation of Wexford Slobs from Wexford Harbour. The Greenlands first arrived here at the beginning of the 20th century and by 1925 their numbers had increasing, reaching between 4000-6000 birds by the 1940s, leaving traditional haunts in the midland and western bogs. The Greenlands had virtually replaced the greylags on the North Slob at Wexford by the 1950s but yet this was a time of parlous and worrying decline for the race, down by 50% from the population of between 12000 and 17,000 in the fifties to an estimated 7,500 to 8,600 birds.
The birds which animate the winter skies at Wexford are an avian spectacle to rival that of African big game. They also connect Ireland with the wider world, something share, which divides its time between northern climes and Irish grazing.