Ghandi, Grace & Dotty - our geese

Chickens have been our thing since we started on the farm. We’ve managed against all odds to expand and sell good free range eggs to local businesses. On arrival, our guests at Merlin’s Cottage get a welcoming basket of eggs and farm produce, laid on a bed of fresh herbs from our garden.

Soon after we had the chickens going, we invested in a few geese. As they were closely related we decided to start our own breeding programme and I travelled miles to collect more eggs from different families so we could add a bit more variety to our farm family. The geese were mixed breeds from Chinese, Ambden to Grey Saddle Back and some Pied or just common domestic.

It didn’t take too long before the first nests were built and it surely was fantastic to take a walk and discover new nesting site all over the farm. This was the first season we had geese and unfortunately were not at all clued up with their natural behaviour or territory… but all started off fine.

Pairs started separating from the rest of the gaggle and we had several geese sitting on full nests. Excitement and expectations ran high.

One afternoon I walked over to feed a pair who were close to hatching their first goslings (I used to make a habit of feeding or taking fresh water closer to the nests of each pair and very soon they all got used to it)…  only this time the pair was missing! No goose, no gander, and no eggs! I lost it nearly and we considered every possible way this could’ve happened. It stayed a mystery.

A few days later the same thing happened to a favourite pair of Saddle Backs a bit further away from the house. We found only a few eggshells and an empty nest.  Devastated we tried to lead our remaining flock into the chicken run to keep them safe. This didn’t work – they would wait till dusk and then fly over the fence to get back to their own free space.

We discovered that a caracal (similar to a lynx) sneaked up at night and just took its pickings… even two at a time. This was our first encounter with this type of cat. We soon had only five geese left.

Our neighbour had a few geese and it seemed like the two families started calling at each other. Our geese would then join his on their pond next door and soon the two families joined. Soon after our geese moved next door, they also started to disappear. We gave up.

Our neighbour kept going with his geese, restocking as soon as his numbers declined. They bred happily and often we had the joy of watching his geese leading their offspring on his ponds. We let go of the notion of keeping geese, thinking it was not going to happen for us.

Next season the same thing started to happen, the geese next door disappeared one-by-one. One day our neighbour called me over and offered me nine eggs from the nest of a goose that went missing during the night. He couldn’t say for sure if the eggs were incubated or not but I wasted no time and placed them under Sally – one of my most reliable Rhode Island Red hens who’d go broody if she finds a full nest. We weren’t sure what to expect or even if she would hatch these eggs. Goose eggs take 28-32 days to hatch where a chicken only takes 21 days and they need greater humidity. As the eggs were too big for Sally the hen to turn, I had to do it for her and then dampen the nest and eggs with drops of water.

One morning, after sitting for a whole month, the first egg started to pip! By the next morning, she managed to hatch 4 goslings! Unfortunately, the youngest died soon after as the nest was too small and it got trampled, unfortunately. Sally raised her three strange chicks as if she never noticed anything different about them. She realised their preferred food was grass and not mixed chicken feed so she would lead them to the grassy bits under the trees. She also noticed they loved to jump into the water bowl and was a bit paranoid at first but soon got used to it and patiently waited for them beside the pond. We named the trio Ghandi (the gander), Grace and Dotty (she has a black feather on her back).

As they grew bigger the goslings still needed to snuggle under her for warmth and although they got a bit big for her she would persevere in discomfort all night. It was a funny sight to see them struggling to get in under her.

Geese start to lay the first spring after birth, so by August, Gandhi got the urge to mate. He had no idea what he was doing (or how to do it) and a few times nearly drowned Dotty. Grace had patience and allowed him to practise in any way he saw fit… either the wrong way or too slow with her head under water. Eventually, he got it right …

Geese always build their nests close to where they were born so Grace decided the henhouse would be the place to lay. She dismantled all the nesting material in the nest boxes one night and built her nest in the middle of the floor! This was not going to work. Gandhi wouldn’t allow any hens on the floor then, so I had to make a different plan. I placed a piece of wood on the far side of the nesting boxes and added more straw to it, and she took the bait. She built it up into a tower almost and laid her first egg right there. After a few eggs, she started to cover them up and soon after began to lay it out down. I was amazed to see how instinctively she would know exactly how to do it – it’s not like she was raised by her real mother but by a chicken! One morning she started to sit.

Dotty acted in a similar style but chose a pile of wood cuttings outside the henhouse. Not good either. I wanted her to lay inside too because it would be safer and easier to control if both sisters sat close. I constructed a triangular nest for her right by the door and laid it out with straw...  and she settled right there the first time. She laid her eggs in comfort and also decorated it with her down.

A kind lady donated 12 unwanted goose eggs to us and we decided to add them to our own. We marked them so we would know which belonged to whom. It took a month for the first egg to pip but then went quite quickly after the first gosling appeared. Grace delivered five little goslings! Words could not describe how excited we were, and the camera worked overtime on that first morning the family went for a swim!

I candled the remaining eggs that night to see why they’d not all hatched. Grace nearly took my arm off but soon realised I meant no harm. I discovered that none of her own eggs were fertilised and the goslings that hatched were not her own but from the donated eggs. I did the same with the eggs under Dotty and the same showed of her own eggs. I had to remove them and left her with the marked eggs we got elsewhere. A week later she hatched four goslings.

Never had I expected to see how different the two mothers could be – they had completely different personalities and treated their youngsters totally different. Where Grace would be aware of her goslings at all times, Dotty would just move on and leave her young in the nest or wherever outside. Gandhi would then go and collect them and gather all of them together with Grace. It was a strange setup but it seemed to work. At night Dotty would run off after dinner and settle on her nest and leave her goslings to their own fate. Grace battled to settle with all 9 goslings under her so I would put Dotty’s four back under her every night. Eventually, they settled as they grew older.

They grow at such speed and all from just eating the young sprouts of grass in the field. Occasionally they would peck at the mixed chicken feed in the henhouse but were not really interested in trying to get these fiddly bits of grain into their stomachs.

They really are most precious to us and I’m sure will bring us loads of enjoyment in the future. We’ve learnt so much from them.

 Who knows what they’d be up to next spring season…

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