Don’t say boo to the goose

If I see geese when I’m out and about I give them a wide berth thanks to scary encounters as a child.

In my dad’s column from 3rd July 1982, he writes that a reader has asked if he knew of any animal one could own that would help keep the grass short without damaging other plants and trees.

Sheep have a reputation for being excellent lawn mowers, although they also have a tendency to mow their way through other plants too, so not a good idea if you cherish your cultivated borders. Goats have a similar reputation, but it is not really deserved, as I learned on a recent visit to a smallholding. The owner kept a couple of pygmy goats, and I commented that I could do with their help in keeping my rampant grass at bay (You might recall that after building work wrecked the lawn, my landlord planted some seed that he had been offered for free. Turned out it was a species of grass used by livestock farmers for their herds rather than one suitable for domestic gardens. It grows like the clappers). Anyway, I learned that goats only eat grass as a last resort, and much prefer more interesting foodstuffs, such as hay, fruit and vegetable scraps, or grains and seeds. They are what is known as ‘browsers’ rather than ‘grazers’ which means they will look for the tastiest thing they can find before resorting to boring old grass.

According to Dad, one of the best animals for keeping grass at bay without damaging other plants is the goose, which likes nothing more than to graze on the stuff. He also mentions that they make excellent security guards due to their territorial nature, excellent eyesight and very good hearing. Their foghorn-worthy calls alert their owners to anyone approaching the property, whatever the time of day. I know this only too well from being a regular visitor to my godmother who kept several geese in her back garden. They scared the living daylights out of me every time I went to visit.

As is often the case in Yorkshire households, we used the back door whenever we paid her a call (the front door was unused and pristine, reserved only for very special guests, such as the Queen). Once we got to the back gate, we would peer over to see where the geese were, and if they were far enough away, we’d run the gauntlet to the back door in the hope that the belligerent hissing fowl would not catch us. If we arrived to find them between the gate and the back door, then we’d have to wait for my godmother to come out and shoo them away. They were far too vicious to risk venturing in by ourselves.

This fearsome reputation goes back as far as 390BC, when the Gauls launched a vicious assault on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The attacking force had managed to get past the sleeping soldiers and guard dogs. It was only the feathery commotion and loud honking of the geese living on the hill that roused the Romans, enabling them to defend themselves and save the city from the invaders. From then on, the goose was considered a sacred animal throughout Italy.

This reputation continues today, and I have found out that apparently, thanks to their ability to make a lot of noise, 500 geese were deployed alongside human guards, dogs and drones to patrol the border between Vietnam and the Chinese province of Chongzuo during the Covid-19 pandemic. There have also been a number of substantial insurance payouts awarded to unfortunate delivery personnel who have been injured by geese while attempting to do their job.

Geese are very loyal and sociable creatures, and usually get on well with other animals with which they are housed. They are also very good at protecting their peers from attacks from predators such as foxes, cats and birds of prey. They mate for life, and will keep a watchful eye over any of their posse that is sickly. At birth, goslings will attach themselves to the first large moving thing they encounter, be it their actual parent, another animal, a human, or even an object. Known as ‘imprinting’, they remain dedicated to it for the rest of their lives.

According to some, the intimidating reputation of the goose is not deserved, but if I spot any while out and about, I still give them a very wide berth.

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 1st July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 29th June 2022