IN THE fading light of a winter afternoon a wavering skein of pink-footed geese breaks its V-formation as it begins its measured descent.

The skein fills the air with what must be one of the most evocative sounds of a northern winter as legs are dropped in readiness for a safe landing.

Each goose, tired from daytime foraging on the Ribble Estuary and beyond, still has enough energy to carefully choose a vacant spot amidst the huge numbers already on terra firma and land with uncanny precision.

These geese are here to feed and it”s mainly thanks to local farmers that they can heartily gorge themselves before settling down to roost for the night. While the huge flocks of wintering pink-footed geese still enjoy pilfering from growing vegetable crops, on this occasion the geese have homed in on a huge heap of waste carrots and potatoes generously dumped in a specially-designated feeding area.

It”s part of the ongoing efforts by local farmers to encourage geese away from their crops – and their benevolence has paid off.

CO-EXISTENCE

It was the first step on a long road to achieving some sort of co-existence between geese and farmers. The protracted battle between the feeding needs of the geese and the income needs of the farmers doesn”t have a fairytale ending, but at least the situation is now tempered with tolerance.

The place is Martin Mere close to Southport, Lancs and the pink-footed geese – as many as 27,000 have been recorded here on one winter evening – represent a remarkable conservation success story. Not long ago, the word “tolerance” wasn”t one you”d expect to hear from any of the large-scale arable and vegetable farmers whose lands surround the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere.

There is no goose truce, but these winter visitors from Iceland are now accepted among local farmers. Make no mistake, the ravaging pink-footed geese still plague many of the crops grown here and farmers take all sorts of measures to minimise the damage. But now there is a harmony of sorts where once there was discord.

Since the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust – originally the Wildfowl Trust – was established here in 1975, the huge flocks of wintering geese and swans have been encouraged on to the 120ha (300 acres) of flooded fields and meres surrounding the reserve. From bitter disputes over damaged crops and raging arguments between conservationists and farmers, a constructive dialogue eventually emerged.

“At least I don”t get angry farmers banging on my door demanding compensation,” says trust director Patrick Wisniewski.

He”s worked at Martin Mere for over 20 years and has witnessed the acute conflict that developed between the geese and local farmers.

“Originally there was intense antagonism but we”ve tried to keep a dialogue going. The changing attitude among farmers towards conservation has helped pour oil on troubled waters,” says Mr Wisniewski.

The Martin Mere reserve has recently expanded to over 214ha (530 acres) through the purchase of adjoining farmland owned by brothers Robert and Richard Travis, who were major arable farmers on land immediately adjoining part of the trust.

GOOSE DAMAGE

Robert Travis, who still farms a small acreage of carrots and potatoes, is typical of many farmers whose winter crops have been damaged by the wintering geese. But despite the losses incurred over many years he retains a deep interest in wildfowl and this bird-rich wetland environment.

 “All growers here are still plagued by goose damage and have to do whatever they can to move geese off their fields. But the geese are here and so are the farmers. We have to learn to live together.”

Although south-west Lancs farmland remains an area of international conservation significance, landowners who have to cope with the impact of wintering wildfowl have never been offered any environment grants for providing this habitat.

“It”s time that farmers in this region were recognised for the part they play in sustaining this environment. In Scotland, farmers were paid for providing grazing for Brent geese but there”s been nothing for us,” says Mr Travis.

He believes the mid-term review and the introduction of a new raft of environmental grants is the perfect opportunity to acknowledge the part played in conserving this area by local farmers.

Mr Travis says: “The ELS and HLS schemes will be introduced in spring 2005. I believe there”s sound justification for farmers in this part of Lancashire to apply for environmental grants under the HLS scheme based on providing a habitat for the wintering geese.”