The goose whisperer: flying high with the wild geese of Norfolk
It is a grimy, grubby, dank dusk soon after the shortest day of the year. A mizzle prevents any view of anything as Nick Acheson squelches along a muddy seabank beside the Norfolk coast. Suddenly, from the far distance, a faint song pierces the gloom, the sound soaring like a choir singing in a vaulted cathedral. Hundreds of high-pitched voices draw nearer – and this vast, desolate landscape of wet marsh and damp air is animated by a glorious cacophony of pink-footed geese. We still can’t see them in the mist, but several thousand birds pass overhead, on their way to roost on the salt marsh. Acheson looks up and sighs. “They are the souls of winter,” he says. “The sight and the sound and the movement and the comings and the goings of winter – and they connect us with the world.”
The spectacle is awesome, free and a rare and precious experience in the modern world: to be a human outnumbered by another species; to witness an abundance of wild birds in one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth (the UK is ranked 12th worst for “biodiversity intactness” out of 240 countries, according to an RSPB study). Invariably, unfortunately, this experience is threatened by anthropogenic menaces: global heating, avian flu and changing farming practices. And so Acheson is determined to bring wider attention to the wonder of geese.
In one sense, he feels an obligation to them. Two winters ago, locked down and alone, the global pandemic having robbed him of employment and family, Acheson, who for years made a living leading wildlife tours around the world, began following the geese. Virtually every day, he cycled 25 miles on his mother’s old red bicycle from his home to the coast and back to seek out not only the pinkfeet, but the brent, barnacle, white-fronted and other even rarer geese that flock here each winter before retreating to the high Arctic in summer.
Geese are the sight and the sound and the comings and the goings of winter – and they connect us with the world
“Winter is hard. I’m scrawny, I don’t heat my house,” laughs Acheson, a boyish, enthusiastic naturalist who perpetually interrupts himself to point out the alarm call of a wren or the scent left by a fox. “That winter, my mum had a significant health diagnosis, so I wasn’t allowed near her. I didn’t have any income apart from a day a week’s work with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. I didn’t know where life was going to go, and I was completely alone, month after month. So the geese were my flock.”
He didn’t set out to write a book – “I thought, how am I going to get through this winter? I will write a story about the geese” – but his journal has become The Meaning of Geese, a gorgeously observed paean to the beauty and complexity of these birds, and the landscape of North Norfolk.
Acheson grew up here, in a village called Little Snoring. As a boy, he was obsessed with wild animals and inspired to love geese by a teacher, Dave Horsley, who led his school’s bird club.
“The world is a jigsaw of understanding,” says Acheson. “You need the first pieces put there for you to start seeing a pattern, and he gave us those pieces. What lives in this landscape? What noise does it make? Where does it come from? He peopled the landscape with what belongs there in an osmotic way. It was so gentle.”
Acheson left Norfolk for university and then lived in the Bolivian Amazon for more than a decade. Fluent in Spanish, he travelled the world showing people rare wildlife. “I could have cheerfully lived in South America,” he says. But then, on a trip home to Norfolk, he took a walk on the marshes with an old birdwatching friend. “It was a bright, beautiful winter’s day with wigeon whistling everywhere, and then brent geese, and I thought, this is where I belong, this is where I’m from, this is calling to me.”
He returned home, but continued to lead wildlife tours abroad until he was struck by a crisis of conscience. “I always sought to do only what I thought was supporting conservation, working with ethical companies who put money into conservation, helping biodiversity on the ground. But the more I read about climate, the more convinced I was that everything we were trying to save by taking people to see it was more threatened by climate change.” So he gave up the foreign tours, renounced flying and embraced “low-carbon birding”. He’s contributed to a book of the same name.
“Lots of us birders have talked about our move towards staying local or travelling by land or not twitching.” Twitching – rushing to photograph whatever rare bird flits into Britain – seems to be a dirty word. “No it isn’t,” says Acheson, “because I respect that for some people that’s a way of appreciating nature. For me, I’d rather have a relationship with a place and the things that live in it.”
So watching geese via the medium of an old red bike is not an affectation, but why his mum’s bike? “Because it was a bike that was still available to me and in working order.” Lots of people bought flash bikes in lockdown, I say. “No!” Acheson looks appalled. Does that idea horrify him? “Yes. From a consumer point of view, it’s completely ghastly.”
As you’d expect from a former tour guide, Acheson has a gift for describing geese, in words and while on our walk. “Pinkfeet are all shrill and excitable and full of stories,” he explains. “It’s a high-pitched sound, but underneath there’s this throbbing purr. Whereas the brent geese are all throaty and chesty – more of an all-consuming sound that rolls through you.” The brent are a particularly pretty goose: dainty with a black head and neck and a white rear end. Then there’s the barnacle goose whose “lustrous black neck embraces its pure white face, like a gloved hand holding a ball”, writes Acheson.
Pinkfeet are all shrill and excitable and full of stories. It’s high-pitched, but underneath there’s this throbbing purr
His favourite are the pinkfeet. “They are family animals,” he says. “They pair for life and guide their young in the flocks back to us in the winter, and then stay with them all winter.” The geese were once common on the Norfolk coast, but appear to have been scared away by aerial bombing during the Second World War. By the 1980s they returned, and proliferated thanks to the spread of sugar beet farming – feasting upon beet tops left on fields after harvest. Today, Norfolk’s winter population has retreated from a high of more than 100,000, but 50,000 have been counted at Holkham National Nature Reserve this winter. “You can get 30,000 of them in one field and the sound of them – it reverberates in your chest. It’s a giant noise.”
Acheson argues that geese and other wild birds can be enjoyed anywhere. “Right now we can hear 10,000 geese, which is the most extraordinary blessing, but there are geese everywhere.” Canada geese may be treated as pests, but when they settle in town parks “they are the only megafauna that some people might see,” says Acheson. “They are the last shard of a shattered thing and they are precious for that reason. But it doesn’t have to be geese. It can be starlings or pied wagtails roosting in a city street. It can be the blackbird that wakes you up when it starts singing in March. It’s about sensing that we’re dwarfed by this gigantic extraordinary thing that made us and will consume us, and to which we owe respect and space and love. God, look at that…” Acheson is distracted again by a chorus of goose voices. “That is tens of thousands of birds. Every single one of them with a story.”
Beyond savouring this spectacle, Acheson, alongside a select band of goose obsessives whom he meets in his book, also seeks the possibility of one rare goose – a red-breasted goose, say – among thousands of pinkfeet. “It’s an immersive thing. Working through a flock of geese you’re absolutely lost, you’re completely focused down the barrel of a telescope for hours sometimes. It’s meditative. And it’s reaching out of our own lives into the lives of something beyond us. They take our Norfolk back with them. They are fed through the winter on the land that I belong to, and they take that with them to the Arctic. It’s almost like our gift. Then they bring back the gift of their abundance. It’s the most humbling thing – Bearded tit!” He points to a misty reed bed where a small bird has made a pinging call. “It’s like a badly tuned triangle.”
The abundance of these geese is an everyday wild miracle in southern Britain. Unfortunately, as Acheson reveals, it is also in peril. “I didn’t want to write a relentlessly in-your-face book about climate change, but I wanted to show how much you can engage with the beauty of the wild while being aware of climate change and fearful of the effect it’s going to have on the species that we love,” he says.
The smaller I can feel, the better it is. It’s a feeling of wanting to know my place
He interviews a climate-change professor whose modelling predicts that with a 1.5C temperature rise, the pinkfeet will no longer spend winter in Norfolk. But is this just our loss? Presumably the pinkfeet will adapt and find new food sources as the Arctic melts. “Yes, in Britain it’s our loss. But we can’t assume it will all be OK. Because there are so many feedback loops that spin off from the melting of the tundra. The massive release of methane if we lose the permafrost, which then speeds up the process. All these crazy spirals of climate change. We talk about 1.5C, but it’s 1.5C of failure and denial. People sometimes say to me, ‘What a waste of your time to give up flying,’ but I feel that every gram of carbon that’s not released, every person who is influenced in a positive way, not in an aggressive way or in a holier-than-thou way, but somebody who stops and thinks, that’s a good thing.”
There are other threats to the abundance of winter geese: more efficient harvesting means that fewer sugar beet tops are left on the fields for the geese to eat, and now there’s the menace of avian flu, which devastated breeding seabirds along Britain’s northeast coast last year. The virus has yet to rip through the flocks of pinkfeet, but it is surely only a matter of time.
And yet our gloomy, misty, chilly walk is wreathed in hope – it seems inherent in the glorious chorus of thousands of geese. Their song does not sound like a lament. Acheson points out that simple tweaks in our farming system could make more space, and food, for them. “We can live alongside these things,” he argues. “We are humans and we have taken control of the landscape right across the world – 96% of mammals on earth by biomass are humans and our livestock. That’s terrifying and yet it doesn’t take much to give them space. That starts with paying attention to them. [Environmentalist] Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about ‘the honourable harvest’. If we’re going to take resources from the wild, at the very least we owe them our attention.”
Through paying close attention to wild nature, Acheson, like so many of us, has found solace during difficult times. These geese make him feel small and he revels in it. “The smaller I can feel, the better it is. And that’s not a self-obliterating feeling, it’s a feeling of wanting to know my place, because genetically, the carbon, the genes, everything that makes me and you and us is part of this enormous flow, and these geese are a sacrament of that.”
The Meaning of Geese by Nick Acheson (Chelsea Green, £20) is published on 9 February