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Geese have played an integral part in the history of mankind. Hunting was essential to the survival of all family groups of Neolithic man. The arrival of great skeins of geese from the North each autumn was a source of wonder through the millennia, and myths developed to try and explain this.

Barnacle geese, for example, were believed to change into barnacles each spring, and this belief persisted until the middle of the 19th Century when their Arctic nesting places were discovered.


Roman geese at semi-liberty in Glasgow Zoopark

The most important goose in history of mankind was the Greylag goose. This was primarily because they did not migrate. They bred throughout Europe on:

  • pools,
  • ponds and
  • rivers.

The sitting bird, with her stubborn refusal to leave her eggs - especially if they were hatching or on the point of hatching, made an irresistible target for hunters.

Any newly-hatched goslings could be given to the children to hand-rear. Provided they were warmed at regular intervals through the day and night for the first ten days or so, they were easy to rear as they fed mainly on short grass. The goslings would also be imprinted on humans, a phenomenon often witnessed but not understood until much later.

Tame Greylag geese would thus be found in nearly every encampment, especially as they provided - as the Romans were to discover centuries later - highly effective security. The watchfulness of geese, combined with the abilities of dogs, must have contributed greatly to the survival of people living in small families in areas full of

  • wolves,
  • bears,
  • lynx, and other, possibly unfriendly,
  • tribes.
Goose: Cereopsis goose

© Andy Smyth, Glasgow

The captured geese bred and, during 3,000 years (at least) of captive breeding, it was inevitable that all sorts of mutations would occur. These took the form of variations in colour, size and feather type. With further selection these developed into breeds. Some - such as the all-white geese of Rome which, by cackling, saved the city from stealthy attack - are known as Romans to this day.

However, there are many other breeds, most refined during the last 200 to 300 years. All descended from the Greylag and will interbreed quite happily, producing fertile young. It is the skill of breeders practising selection which have maintained and developed the often spectacular breeds we see today.

One of the most eye-catching is the Sebastopol, or Pantomime goose, achieving the latter name because of its comical appearance. These geese are widely distributed in Eastern Europe, particularly in the countries surrounding the Black Sea. Goose down and feathers have always been important for stuffing pillows and bed coverings. The over-abundance, and length of the Sebastopol's exaggerated appearance was important in this respect. In the "best" examples, the long-trailing, wavy body feathers should loop round a man's clenched fist twice. The first Sebastopols entered Britain in 1859, and they have remained popular with specialist breeders ever since.

Other geese on display will be a variety of "farmyard" types, of normal goose shape and size, and varied mottled colours. These are typical of geese surrounding farmyards and stables in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. One could safely speculate that Jesus was born within earshot of farmyard geese somewhere close-by, if not actually in the stable itself, though that is also a possibility.

Canada Goose

Canada Goose Conservation Society, PO Box 6691, London E17 7RS
Opposes the culling of Canada Geese which readers may be familiar with on their local ponds and reservoirs. The first Canada Geese to be introduced to the UK arrived in London in the 1600s. Numbers have built up since then, supplemented by vagranys blown across the Atlantic by stormy winds. Where people are trying to maintain open parkland, these geese and their droppings can prove a nuisance. Culls have involved shooting the geese and pricking their eggs.