The handsome Barnacle Goose (Gé ghiúrainn, Branta leucopsis) is a winter visitor to Ireland, predominantly occurring along the west coast. They show a particular fondness for offshore islands, which offer undisturbed grazing opportunities, though several flocks also visit mainland sites: perhaps the most reliable place to see them is at Lissadell in Co Sligo.A medium-sized goose, reaching up to 70cm in length, the Barnacle Goose is distinctively patterned, with a black head, neck and upper breast, grey back and wings barred with black and white, and a white belly. The legs and the bill, which appears proportionally rather small, are black. It can easily be distinguished from other dark goose species by its striking creamy-white face; the widespread Brent Goose has an all-black face with just a small white patch on either side of the neck, whereas the introduced Canada Goose only has a broad white chin strap, with no white surrounding the eye.
The Barnacle Geese that spend the winter in Ireland come to us from Greenland, via Iceland, generally arriving in October and remaining until early April. Other populations of Barnacle Geese breed in Spitsbergen and in Siberia; these individuals generally winter in Britain and western Europe.
The species' name derives from the fact that people once believed the barnacles growing around our shores were the young of the geese. It was supposed that these barnacles developed into adult geese under the water during the summer months, conveniently explaining why the geese were only seen in the winter, the phenomenon of bird migration not being understood at all at that time. Bizarrely, this meant the geese were considered actually to be fish, meaning that Catholics were free to eat them during Lent and at other times when eating meat was forbidden.
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