It’s pretty much the wintriest of birds, the Barnacle Goose.
It comes to the UK and Ireland from one of three main populations (the far northern Russian archipelago Novaya Zemlya, the Norwegian island of Svalbard, or Greenland) and settles in Western Scotland, Ireland and also the Netherlands between about October and March. One of those vast, extraordinary migrations that boggle the mind briefly and make us point and stare and think. For a while, at least. From cold bleak and blasted shore to colder bleaker and more blasted shore.
It certainly confused observers a thousand years ago, who, so bewildered by the birds’ sudden appearance in the winter months and their complete vanishing act in Spring, wondered where they went and how they came to be. The common conviction was that they sprang from barnacles, fully formed, while overseas, and returned to us as adults.
They’re one of the Branta or black geese species. There are others that may be more familiar, Canada Geese and Brent Geese; the Brent Goose, a similar and similarly behaved bird, even hangs on to the latin name Branta bernicla.
All of which is very interesting, but why on earth, the day before midsummer, did I see four of them walking across a Bedfordshire meadow, incongruously muttering to themselves as they sauntered along under a cloud of grass pollen? I saw some last summer too, behind my office, sat in a field of beets helping themselves to the fresh leaves. They stayed for weeks.
Well, perhaps less romantic than springing shockingly from barnacles stuck to leisure craft along the Nene (an extraordinary notion in itself), it seems there is a small but thriving feral population. It’s possible I suppose that they may have been wild birds that had become lost and stayed here, but more likely they were escapees. Bold and distinctive, Barnacle Geese are pretty popular with waterfowl collectors. Google them, if that’s your thing: they usually fetch £50-£100 a pair.