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Migrating geese cull permissible in Estonia again this spring

Migrating Barnacle geese.
Migrating Barnacle geese. Source: Thermos/Wikimedia Commons.

After two years of respite, the Estonian state is planning to allow the hunting of geese in spring 2024.

Particularly during migrating and breeding season, many species of wild geese fill up on newly sprouting crops, and can cause economic damage to farmers, the latter say.

Rainer Vakra, director general of the Environmental Board (Keskkonnaamet), which made the proposal, says more exact regulations on the cull, ie. hunting with a shotgun, are to be established as soon as possible.

Compared with spring a decade ago, Vakra, a former SDE MP, noted that the number of geese present in Estonia has risen by around 30 percent.

Farmers say that this annual "feeding" of geese, primarily Barnacle geese (Estonian: valgepõsk-lagle) and Greater white-fronted geese (Estonian: Suur-laukhani), costs about €10 million in damage to crops per year.

Barnacle geese which breed in parts of northern Russia and Novaya Zemlya in summer migrate southwestwards to the North Sea coasts of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, and fly over Estonia and the Baltic en route, meaning many stop off to feed.

A pair of Barnacle geese and their young, photographed in Sweden. Source: Bengt Nyman/Wikimedia Commons

Greater white-fronted geese are similarly migratory, spending the winter in Europe.

Vakra told ERR's radio news that: "It is these two specific factors which bring us to review the deterrent measures."

"If we have been successful with our nature conservation, then do we have a reason to take a few steps back and review where the red line lies, where it is reasonable to take this deterrence to the next level," he continued.

This next level means hunting, in fact.

The spring hunting of geese was last permitted in 2021. At the time, the Estonian Ornithological Society (Eesti Ornitoloogiaühing) took the matter to court, over fears that rarer species of geese may also have been inadvertently culled in the process.

The court then placed wild geese more generally under preliminary legal protection, and the situation has remained in limbo since then – no solution was found, while the dispute subsided once the time set for the hunt expired.

This was followed by a couple of years when only so-called non-lethal measures were used each spring.

These included explosive detonations and old-school scarecrows, but farmers said these methods were not up to the task. Having someone physically chase the geese works best, but is a very resource-intensive activity, the farmers say.

A third of compensation money went on administration

Farmers once again raised the topic of deterrence hunting last fall, when it became clear that the state no longer had the funds to compensate for damage to agriculture inflicted by geese.

According to Rainer Vakra, the payment of €3,200 compensation to farmers was in sufficient and ineffective.

Vakra said: "A dozen officials from all over the country were at work at the Environmental Board and constantly assessed the damages. Speaking in the vernacular, they counted up goose droppings."

"In order for the Estonian state to be able to pay out €200,000 in goose damage, however, the Environmental Board spent €80,000," he went on.

The Ministry of Climate is planning to amend the hunting regulations in any case, in order to allow deterrence hunting of the type mentioned above.

Aimar Rakko, the ministry's hunting adviser, said that the geese had also become wise to non-lethal deterrence, which was another reason for its lack of effectiveness.

"Those deterrent hunting studies which have been demonstrated that lethal deterrence, as such, is also effective deterrence," adding that a combination with some of the non-lethal methods was even more effective.

Environment Board study does not speak to efficacy of goose hunting

The effects of the deterrence hunting of geese were in fact the subject of an Environment Board study in Estonia in the years 2019-2020, whose summary noted that no significant impact on the number of geese or the fearfulness of geese was detected by deterrence hunting.

"In a field that had been the scene of hunting, geese were sometimes just as likely to be present the next day as they were in fields that had seen conventional (ie. non-lethal – ed.) deterrence," the study states.

The study did however find that lethal deterrence is somewhat more effective than non-lethal deterrence, but did not state to what extent.

The same study was also relied on by both court levels (ie. the county/administrative court and the circuit court – ed.) in the 2021 decision.

Ornithologists noticed that hunters could accidentally shoot much rarer or endangered species, such as the Lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus) or the Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis sensu stricto), both of which are difficult for non-experts to distinguish from the species which would be permissible to cull.

The court stated then that: "Although the likelihood of killing particularly endangered geese in the course of deterrence hunting is relatively low, the greater effectiveness of lethal deterrence compared with non-lethal deterrence methods is also questionable. In view of this, the circuit court considers that there is no basis to consider farmers' interest in curbing crop losses via deterrence hunting, in addition to the other measures used."

Aimar Rakko from the climate ministry said the hope was that starting from 2021, amassing more comprehensive data on the effects of deterrence hunting would be attainable. In his opinion, a two-year study cannot provide sufficiently accurate results. "By conducting this observation over a lengthier period, however, it would be viable to observe these trends and changes more clearly," he said.

Vakra: Farmers say that cull will help

According to the Ministry of Climate, a mistake made at that time will be corrected now that farmers will be allowed to hunt again. "We will look at this in two or three years to see how much interest remains, and if this doesn't also reflect this effect itself," Rakko said. "If the interest is at the same level as it is now, this will help, and if it has fallen, then the measure may not have helped as much."

Rainer Vakra said that he, too, has read this study from four years ago. "Though this certainly has the dimension of a societal consensus decision on how we proceed," Vakra said. "The same discussions were also held in Latvia, where the decision was made to permit the shooting of geese in the springtime."

Vakra stressed that, according to farmers and hunters, shooting geese can be helpful to their ends, adding however that: "There are perhaps as many people as there are beliefs."

"If you take a look at various studies worldwide, this kind of deterrence hunt continues to be implemented," he went on.

Although altering the hunting regulations is the responsibility of the Ministry of Climate, the Environment Agency sets the actual conditions when it comes to deterrence hunting. According to the 2021 rules, a total of one thousand geese could have been culled, apportioned between 650 Greater white-fronted geese and 350 Barnacle geese.

Hunting was permissible only on farmland as approved by the Environmental Board and in five Estonian counties (of 15). Up to four birds were allowed to be culled per field, per day.

Aimar Rakko said that the new rules to be drawn up for spring 2024 will likely be similar.

Rainer Vakra added that a special working group will develop the rules, and the matter will be discussed with both farmers and hunters.

No pan-European solution in sight

Both Vakra and Rakko acknowledge that geese are causing an increasing headache for European farmers. Vakra referred to one forecast which says the number of Barnacle geese flying over the Baltic Sea will increase six- to ten-fold over the next few decades.

"In fact, the major and concrete question is that if we carry out some conservation decisions, but it transpires out that they really work, as for example with the Barnacle geese, how can Europe agree that now this goal has been achieved, so we should abandon the measures," Vakra said, noting a similar story with cormorants, which are still protected in several zones in Estonia.

Aimar Rakko also found that Europe does not have a universal solution to deal with the increasing wild geese numbers, yet in the case of migratory birds, the actions of one nation alone does not help much.

This does not mean that some other countries have not made an effort. For example, in the Netherlands, geese are rounded up using fences and then gassed with carbon dioxide. This method has proven controversial, with conservationists saying it is cruel and some local authorities denying this.

Rainer Vakra said that Estonia will continue to discourage geese but we are not dealing with limiting their number via mass culls, which are not done in Estonia; the legal framework also allows spring deterrence hunting only in exceptional cases as here.

Vakra put the population of Barnacle geese migrating across the Baltic region at 1.2 to 1.4 million overall.

"And when we talk about culling the numbers of this species, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of birds that should be killed, and neither Estonian hunters, farmers, nor society are prepared for that," he went on.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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