One Step at a Time - A Tiny Derbyshire Smallholding

Pilgrim Geese

With a half acre of grass in the orchard to keep down, it was always on the cards to introduce an animal that would do the job of a sit-on mower. Absolutely pointless in growing grass to then just cut it, but we had to wait until the grass was established enough. Just after it had first been sown, and the fruit trees were yet to be planted, we borrowed some local sheep to eat the new grass down. This was the perfect solution – they’d come in quickly and eat the new shoots down, forcing the grass to grow a decent root system. They also tackled the chickweek situation – a weed we have here in a prolific amount, and one that loves newly turned soil. Low, regular mowing will do the same for new grass, but the sheep had several advantages:

  • No petrol usage.
  • Their hooves compact the ground, firming the grass root systems up.
  • They manure as they walk.
  • All the nutrients they take, they eventually put back.
  • They do all of the work for you, in exchange for fresh buckets of water every day.
  • They’re pleasing to watch!

However – when it came to choosing which animal we would eventually use, we went through several ideas before settling on geese, and then a few more before eventually choosing Pilgrim geese as the lawnmower of Merrybower.

One thing I would dearly love to have is a milking animal. This was the original plan – goats or sheep. Goats are possibly the better option for milking – but they eat absolutely everything, and are lousy grazers. So no good for keeping grass down. Sheep, on the other hand, are great for keeping grass down but, as every farmer around here kept trying to tell me, sheep are always looking for the next reason to die. This wasn’t so much an issue – what really prevented sheep from becoming the lawnmower we needed was strictly down to time. We would need a maximum of two sheep and their followers for the half acre. But milking them would be a daily job, twice daily, and with other life commitments it was a big thing to take on. And so that idea was put on the backburner (though it is in no way ruled out, especially after seeing Ryland sheep), and we decided on geese.

We’d had 6 years of chicken keeping, and quite wrongly assumed this would be a good grounding for geese keeping – after all, they’re both birds! We also found that it’s six geese to one sheep, when it comes to grazing needs. That meant we could, in theory, keep up to 18 geese on our half acre, if we needed to (though in hindsight that number is far too high for my liking).

Now what goose to have? After much reading up on breeds, it was decided that the Pilgrim goose would be a good choice. It was a medium-sized goose – something not too unweildy. It was a good utility bird – decent egg production and a decent size for eating, should you be so inclined. It is also noted for its gentle disposition (again, I assume this must be relative to other geese). And best of all, they were auto-sexing – males are mostly white with blue eyes, and females are grey with some white on the head and brown eyes – and you can tell which is which at birth.

When our first Pilgim geese arrived, it was an eye opener! We expected to keep them with the flock of chickens, but they became possesive over the layers pellets, which meant the poor chickens never got a look in, and the grass grew on unabated, watched over by our three geese who were getting fatter by the day. So, much to their disgust, they were separated from the chickens. They were also messier than chickens – a goose poop is bigger and wetter than a chicken poop. But having said that, they also break down quicker, being almost nothing but chewed up grass. They are also no good for the auto-drinkers we’d bought the chickens. One day and the drinker is all muddied up.

I guess we should mention the plus sides now?!  Once separated from the chickens (and therefore the layers pellets) they got on with the business of cutting the grass. In those days we had three geese in one quarter acre, and at peak season it wasn’t enough – we still had to mow although it was half as ferequent. I would say that 6-8 birds in a quarter acre might be enough in peak season. However, when it comes to winter, four birds per quarter acre is enough if you don’t supplement them much grain.

Their houses are much easier to clean out – less fiddly. Barrow, fork, in you go, scoop it all out, quick hose down or disinfect, depending on how thorough the cleaning is that day, and the job’s a good’un. Because their bedding is straw, their poops cling to it nicely so it comes out in great gobbets. It’s also a good material to add to the composter, breaking down better than the hay we use in the chickens’ nest boxes.

But, asides from a fresh bucket of water every day, it’s their feeding regime that’s best. It’s grass! For the majority of the year they just eat the stuff that you’d otherwise be cutting with a machine! Sure, in winter you need to supplement it, but even then they eat far less bought-in stuff than chickens. And eggs – don’t forget the eggs. We had about forty from each goose last year, between March and June, and they are best for cooking with. Massive rich yolks, three times the size of a chicken egg – one on a slice of toast will fill you up.

The best thing about geese, for me personally, is their intelligence. They’re nosey – they have to taste everything – a nibble on anything is a must. And they also love watching you work – when I dig they just stand and watch. When we’re planting, they’re eyeing up every seedling going in. And a year later they’ve learned the word ‘Bedtime’ means just that – get into your house for the night.

They’re also extremely good guard dogs – alerting you to every stranger they can see across the field, or car on the road, or aircraft thousands of feet in the air. Oh, and they love dandelions! I know geese were kept specifically for weeding orchards and fields in days gone by – ‘Weeder Geese’ – but I’m unsure if it’s just pure coincidence or not that the two quarter acres they have access to have less dandelions than the other two.

There are also some links to the right that may be useful if you fancy learning more about them. Unfortunately we’re not breeding them at the moment – as soon as we do, we’ll update this page.