A journey can feel like a pilgrimage

Dark-bellied brent geese flock in their thousands to Essex to spend the winter here (pic Martyn Wilson)

Writer Anne Boileau pays homage to the brent goose, an enchanting bird that graces the Essex coastline every winter

In October last year I saw them touch down in the stubble field by the Essex Way above Coggeshall. They landed, about 50 of them, and stood very still and silent on their webbed feet, looking around, their heads held up, etched against the evening sky like crochets and minims. What a journey they had made, almost 2,000 miles from the tundra of the Arctic Circle. What courage, endurance and navigational skill!
Two races of brent geese winter in this country: dark-bellied and pale-bellied. The dark-bellied ones raise their young in the short summer in Siberia and fly south in the autumn to the English coast, notably Essex, Norfolk and Sussex. The pale-bellied ones breed in Canada and fly south to Ireland and Northumberland in the autumn.
They’re very small, not much bigger than a mallard duck. Farmers where they congregate are paid to grow grass rather than winter wheat for them to graze; this autumn we can again see their joyful flocks wheeling overhead, returning, returning, to their favoured winter quarters such as Abberton, Fingringhoe Wick and Mersea Island.
These birds have made this journey for millennia. They’ve had barely two months of summer to court, nest, brood and raise their young before they must obey the imperative to fly south.
At Blue House Farm nature reserve on the Crouch estuary, Essex Wildlife Trust is undertaking a satellite-tagging project to discover how they manage the trip going north. One of these individuals, Bran 19, made frequent stopovers to refuel and rest, stopping in the German Wadden Sea, the island of Gotland, Helsinki and St Petersburg before finally arriving in Lizhmojero.
I am not a goose, but I always feel drawn north to Scotland in the spring. I even feel drawn north now in the autumn and I went to Iona in October to meet up with a group who have been congregating on this small but sacred island for 16 years to write and imbibe the atmosphere there.
The journey itself is like a pilgrimage and for me involves driving to Nottinghamshire, followed by three trains, two ferries and one bus.
I’d done this trip many times, but nevertheless I felt nervous because I hadn’t been out much recently.
I’m not as brave as those brent geese, nor do I have their remarkable navigation skills. But I’ve discovered that some of the pale-bellied race, the Irish ones, spend their winters on Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, another place of pilgrimage, not Saint Columba but Saint Cuthbert.
Whether by train and bus and ferry or on the wing in a skein, geese and humans feel impelled to make journeys. Sometimes those journeys seem like a pilgrimage.

Anne Boileau
June 2021

The brent is a delightful little species of goose (pic Martyn Wilson)