Monday, March 1

‘The goose is getting fat’

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A gaggle of geese flies in a V-shaped formation.

CHRISTMASTIDE will not be the same this year in so many households around the world because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a time for reflection upon the good Christmas times of past years, when memories come flooding back of our loved ones who have since passed away. It is a time for not only releasing our grief but to give generously to fellow human beings and wildlife trusts – those less fortunate than ourselves – in order to provide them with care, comfort, and food.

An age-old nursery rhyme springs readily to mind:

‘Christmas is a coming,

‘The goose is getting fat.

‘Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat.

‘If you haven’t got a penny,

‘A ha’penny (half penny) will do

‘If you haven’t a ha’penny

‘Then God bless you.’

Such simple words encompass the spirit of Christmas, in beseeching people to be kind in the festive season in helping out others.

It was early this month that I spotted a flying V-formation of Greylag geese overhead – an indication of frosty days to come. They were plump geese that had benefitted from voraciously feeding during a mild Spring and a warm Summer. For many a year, such a sight would have been a marksman’s delight and choice of meat for the family’s Christmas dinner. Greylag geese are inhabitants of wetlands in the UK and have over the years interbred with other geese species to produce the hybrid white goose.

The Greylag goose has been domesticated for some 4,000 years and has found itself as the centre of myths and legends. We even have words derived from this fowl such as ‘goose-pimples’, ‘goose-flesh’, ‘gooseberry’, and even ‘goose-step’! Sayings such as, ‘He can’t say boo to a goose’, ‘She is going on a wild goose chase’, or ‘He killed the goose that laid the golden egg’, abound in the English language.

Goose was once the traditional British Christmas dinner and is now overtaken by turkey, which is a native bird to North America, and was first used as a celebration feast there in 1621. Even in the Victorian novelist Charles Dicken’s famous book entitled ‘A Christmas Carol’, Bob Cratchit’s family enjoyed a huge goose for their Christmas treat, “There never was such a goose … Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness were the themes of immense admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family.”

In medieval times, in Britain, greylag geese, with wings clipped, were herded in goose-drives, in flocks of 1,000 birds, from the Fenlands in Norfolk in Eastern England to the London Cheapside Market at the fast rate of 13km a day. This journey took several months and so as to prepare the fowls for the long walk they were made to walk over warm tar and then sand. Geese have been featured in traditional medicines and remedies such as smearing one’s body with goose fat to ward off the winter’s chill, and as a cure for alopecia, sore throats, pains, and aches of the limbs.

Greylag geese are essentially monogamous in life-long partnerships.

Greylag goose (Anser anser)

With a wide distribution throughout Northern Europe and Russia into North East China, it may also be found in Eastern and Southern Australia and totally wild in New Zealand. The domestic goose is a subspecies of the greylag goose and thus they are able to interbreed. With its round bulky body and thick and long neck, it has pink feet and legs and an orangey-pink bill. Averaging 832.4cm in length and a wing span of 163am, it weighs about 3.3kg. When angry or under threat it will hiss loudly.

Feeding habits

Mostly feeding on grasses, they may frequently be found sharing sheep and cows’ pastureland. They particularly like sea clubrush, duckweed, and floating sweet grass during the summer months. Winter sees them grazing on grass and leaves, cereal grains, and a particular penchant for leftover potatoes in harvested fields. They also consume amphibians, crabs, crustaceans, molluscs, and small fish.

Mating and breeding

They are essentially monogamous in life-long partnerships. Their nests are comprised of sprigs of reed, heather, grasses, and moss, intermingled with feathery down and are often built on the ground in heather, rushes, reeds, or on rafts of floating vegetation. The female lays a clutch of four to six eggs, laid on successive days, and incubates the eggs whilst the male stands close by on guard. Both the males and females feed the goslings, which become fully fledged after two months.

Gregarious ways

Interestingly the greylag goose finds strength in numbers and forms social bonds in large flocks. Whilst others in a flock feed, ‘sentry’ geese keep a watchful eye for predators such as foxes and wolverines. After breeding, families join together in groups thus enabling the geese to defend their young by their joint actions. The youngsters remain with their parents as a family group and migrate with them as a flock. They are only driven away when their parents breed again.

Whether we eat goose or turkey or whatever for our Christmas dinners, this Christmas we should not forget what Christmas is all about. It celebrates the birth of the Christ child, who brought light and life into a world of darkness. Spare a ‘penny’ for those impecunious people in our world and heave a sigh of relief that the greylag goose is no longer hunted to extinction.

This Christmas will be a sombre occasion in the UK and in many other places worldwide but think of the good times past and the future when a suitable vaccine is available to overcome this pandemic. As is customary at this time of the year, I send my very best Christmas greetings to all Sarawakian and Sabahan readers and of course my warmest wishes to the editorial and all staff of The Borneo Post and thesundaypost.

May 2021 be a much better year for all of us on planet Earth! Stay safe.