Yes, we have goslings! In the cuteness contest, they have however been severely let down by their parents.
Let's start with a brief resume of our attempts to breed geese. For the last two years our white geese have made a nest in the stables, dutifully laid their eggs and sat... and sat... and sat. They have viewed this as a team effort with all available females sitting on the nest. The males have been in charge of looking (and actually being) quite scary.
The problem is that nothing has hatched. When we have inspected the contents of the eggs way after they should have hatched, at least half have contained chicks rather than just yolk, so although fertility is not great, it should have been enough to hatch out a few goslings, which is all we really want.
I can only assume that all those girls shuffling around on the nest must have disturbed the eggs too much.
The grey geese, Giant Dewlap Toulouses to give them their proper title, made a much better attempt last year. One girl sat on a nest in their shed for the entire duration of the incubation. Then, two days before the hatch date, the other girl decided to sit too! The result was that all the eggs came tumbling out. I risked my life to put them back into the nest, but the damage had been done and our total hatch was a big fat zero...except...
Golly who was hatched in the incubator along with one other sibling who sadly died of unexplained causes at about 10 days old.
Golly was a boy but has this year started laying eggs, so we shall have to change our conceptions of him, sorry, her. (Sexing geese is not easy, though we had our suspicions).
Golly quickly imprinted on us and we would often hear his, sorry, her big feet flopping across the kitchen floor behind us, or her beak tapping determinedly at the patio door to come in and be with us. She even went into school and met the children one day. But despite our best efforts, toilet training was not easy and Golly had to be consigned to life with the other geese. For a while she lived with the grey geese, but come the beginning of 2015 she had to be moved in with the white geese, who are clearly racist despite one of them having semi-adopted Golly when she was young.
A goose breeding plan for 2015 was hatched.
Firstly, I would keep the greys and the whites separate so that any greys born would not be inter-related (no comments about The Fens please!) and would not be cross-breeds either. Secondly, I would give the geese some old car tyres. This second decision may seem slightly surprising, but I had read about this on the interweb.
The geese were very late starting to lay this year (8th March for the Embdens and 20th for the Toulouses), but when they finally did they duly constructed their straw nests inside the tyres and deposited their eggs there. I let them roam in and out of the stables during their laying period, but only the pure-breed grey geese could get to their tyre. The white geese shared their tyres with Golly.
On 15th April, one of the white geese settled down onto a nest and a few days later the other girl settled down onto the other tyre. And there they stayed, apart from the occasional brief foray outside, which is okay as they leave their eggs deeply buried in an insulating layer of straw and feathers.
But Golly was still laying, so I set up a tyre for her too.
Meanwhile, over in the other stable, the grey geese had started laying later and so it was a couple of weeks before one of the girls started sitting. After last year's experience I decided to fence her off with sheep hurdles and to feed and water her within the stable. I set up another tyre for the other girl, but she decided to build a nest next to it instead!
Fast forward a couple of weeks and the two white Embdens were still dutifully sitting on their nests. Hatching time was approaching. I considered fencing them off from each other, but since they clearly had their own nests this year, I decided against it. BIG MISTAKE. One evening the behaviour of the geese had clearly changed. One of the girls was all clucky (not sure that's the right word for geese, but honky sounds even wronger!) and the boys were loitering around the stables making menacing sounds and their body language was none too friendly either. I knew that hatching was not far off.
The next morning I peered over the stable door to find... two white girls sitting on one nest! Presumably, desperate for motherhood, one of the girls had been tempted off her own nest at the last minute by the pipping of goslings from inside the shells in the other nest! Not only did this mean that one nest had been abandoned, but it meant that the other eggs would be knocked around at this crucial time.
There was little I could do now without risking all the eggs, so I decided to leave things be and to separate the nests next year. Things were clearly coming to a head. All four white geese now spent their entire time in the stable and close approach was highly inadvisable.
Then came the time. Early in the morning I went out to open the stable doors and I could clearly hear goslings! Our first ever non-incubator hatch! I peered over the door and could clearly see movement in amongst the girl's feathers. Then I saw two tiny balls of yellow feathers appear briefly before disappearing into the clouds of white feathers again. Then two heads appeared.
What I found was two very healthy goslings off out of the nest. A third ball of yellow feathers was unfortunately still in the nest and not moving. How sad to have come all this far and not made it.
The rest of the eggs remained unhatched.
So, back to the Giant Dewlap Toulouse stable. Their offspring, if we got any, would be more valuable as their parents are fine specimens. A few days ago, their behaviour changed too. The sitting female began giving even deeper grunts than normal and the male stood alongside her. In amongst the cacophony they were creating, I thought I could hear the cheeping of babies, but I could not be sure. What with the other goslings, the noisy parents and the constant chattering and cheeping of the swallows in the rafters overhead, it was hard to tell.
Sure enough, next morning there appeared two grey goslings! Followed by another two! One didn't look too healthy. Maybe it was just a later hatched bird, but it had wandered into the straw away from the nest. It would need to get back to the warmth of mum's feathers pretty soon. I tried to get to it, but it quickly became obvious that this would cause too much disturbance to the rest of the family. I did manage to move the sheep hurdles so that mum could get out and the other girl was sectioned off and then I let things be and left the geese in peace for the rest of the day.
Next morning I found SEVEN tiny goslings being tended by two very proud parents and when I returned from work there, splashing about in a rainy yard, were EIGHT goslings inquisitively pecking at everything they saw and generally trying to balance exploring with staying safely with mum and dad.
Sue ventured into the stable to find another two smaller goslings, one in the straw, but still alive, and one which had managed to find its way to its aunt, the other sitting goose.
By now the two white goslings had grown alarmingly and were confidently spending most of their day with three of the adults out in the garden. The other girl Embden had returned to the previously abandoned nest! She clearly doesn't realise that you just cannot abandon your nest for four days and then go back to it. I'll wait until she goes for a wander outside and then clear the eggs from it, otherwise she will sit for ever.
But the two Toulouse parents had a lot more on their hands keeping their eyes on eight little youngsters which weren't particularly good at staying close to their parents. Not only that, but they kept ducking under various fences and gates leaving mum and dad on the other side.
Two days ago the inevitable happened. One of them succumbed to the dangers of the big wide world. I found it badly injured on the ground. The wound may well have been sustained from one of the white geese, though until now they had shown no signs of aggression. Anyhow, I decided that the best course of action was to place the injured gosling close to the rest of its family and then leave things be. It would struggle to keep up, but if they stayed with it there was a small chance it would make a recovery. I wandered off to tend the veg plot and when I returned about half an hour later there was just a scattering of down where the chick had been. Presumably the crows had found it and picked it off.
Reluctantly I decided that for a week or so the goose family would have to return to the stable and stay there. This would mean having to risk the wrath of George to feed and water them every day, but I am hoping that they will grow big enough to be safe from the crows and other dangers outside.
Well, that's nearly the end of the goose tale so far. But things nearly took one final twist yesterday morning when I found one of the older goslings inside the water bucket.
Goodness knows how it had got there, but it certainly couldn't get out again. Fortunately I found it before it became too waterlogged and managed to get past the sitting goose and remove it. The poor thing was bedraggled. I had to get to work soon, so decided to put it back with its family. But it was so bedraggled that it struggled to waddle, it's back end so heavily soaked. The dewy grass was not helping either and the morning sun wasn't warm enough to help it dry. I went off to let the chickens out and when I returned there was a dark, menacing figure prowling around the scene like a hyena. The ever vigilant crows were onto the situation!
I returned from work in the afternoon and headed straight for the stables. No sign of the gosling. I kicked the straw, half expected to uncover a sad ball of feathers, but nothing. I went out into the garden and there were two very healthy, very fluffy goslings! I couldn't even tell which one had been in so much trouble this morning.
Meanwhile, in the other stable, things may be a little cramped, like a large family squeezed into a one bedroom flat, but at least everyone is safe. Seven goslings remain and I have high hopes that we won't lose any more. They spend more time under the goose which is sitting than they do with their own parents, but everyone seems happy.
There are two more active nests, so come June we could have quite a lot of geese helping us cut the grass. Intruders beware!
Tomorrow... Second place for cuteness goes to...?