Brent geese arrive at Strangford Lough

We don’t just look after big houses, we also manage much of Northern Ireland’s coast and countryside, including Strangford Lough, a vast marine nature reserve that’s internationally important for wintering water birds, including the Brent goose.

Every autumn, approximately 25,000 of these light-bellied birds leave their breeding grounds in east Canada and travel to Ireland to spend the winter. Like their ancestors before them, most will arrive on the mud flats of Strangford to refuel on the nutritious eel grass that grows in abundance here.

Food for thought
‘The birds leave Canada in late summer, travelling across Greenland, stopping off briefly in Iceland for a quick refuel before arriving in Ireland,’ explains Strangford Lough head ranger Hugh Thurgate. ‘A few will arrive on our shores in late August, but the majority land in early autumn. In 2016, during World Population Census Day for the light bellied Brent goose and we counted 22, 270 on the lough so around 75% of the total population have made the journey here.’

Every autumn thousands of Brent geese arrive at Strangford Lough
Brent geese at Strangford Lough
Every autumn thousands of Brent geese arrive at Strangford Lough

Habitat management
At the moment the birds are breeding well but Hugh explains this wasn’t always the case. The population dipped to below 10,000 in the 1930s when eel grass declined significantly due to a wasting disease, proving the vulnerability of the species and its reliance on this food source.

‘The role that the National Trust plays in the management of Strangford Lough is crucial to the survival of these birds,’ he explains. ‘Through careful habitat management we maintain the mud flaps and protect the eel grass population from invasive species such as cord grass. If the eel grass can thrive, then the birds will continue to return and refuel on this high protein food source.

‘The Trust also plays a key role in the management of the wild fowling activity in the area, a tried and tested conservation method. We create refuges for the birds, issue permits and patrol the shoreline during the shooting period (Sept – Jan).

A succesful partnership
Thanks to a successful tagging programme which commenced in 2003 in association with the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT) we are well informed about the habits of these visiting birds including their average life span which is around 10-15 years, and their mating preferences. The birds’ pair for life and are totally loyal to each other, they also maintain a strong family bond with their young and tend to breed alternative years.

‘The birds that visit Strangford Lough are a unique ecological unit,’ Hugh adds ‘and thanks to the support of our members and visitors, we are protecting their habitat for generations to come.’