“I like my geese. Like cats, they can’t be told what to do, and like dogs, they’re loyal, and like people, they talk every chance they get” – Shannon Hale
What are geese?
Geese are large waterfowl, domesticated around 4,000 years ago. They are kept for eggs, meat and down, and also as guard animals. Most of the domestic geese we keep in Europe are descended from the greylag goose (Anser anser), found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. The exceptions to this are the African and the Chinese goose, both descended from the swan goose of Mongolia and China.
Geese are gregarious birds naturally living in large flocks. They are intelligent and form strong bonds with their flockmates. For this reason geese sometimes have a reputation for being aggressive. Ganders (male geese), in particular, can be very protective of their flockmates, especially when females are incubating eggs or when young goslings are present. Geese are herbivorous and their natural diet consists mainly of grasses.
A gander aggressively protecting his mate and young.
What are the benefits of keeping geese?
Geese are not difficult to keep and if you have the space to provide them with plenty of grazing they will need very little supplemental feeding. A goose can lay 50 beautiful 150g eggs per year, provide meat for the table plus lawn mowing and guard animal services. Geese are longer lived than other poultry, living for around 25 years.
Goose eggs can be used in same way you would use a hen’s egg. They are 2 to 3 times larger; when baking use one goose egg in place of two large hen eggs. Goose eggs have a proportionally larger yolk than hen eggs and have a stronger flavour, which for some people may take some getting used to. They also contain more protein, fat, calories, vitamins and minerals per gram than chickens’ eggs.
Geese will not scratch up your garden like chickens, or turn it into a muddy mess like ducks. Their droppings do not smell and will wash away in the rain. Geese are hardy, suffer from few health problems and are well suited to the British climate. They are particularly suitable for keeping in orchards. They will keep the undergrowth down and clear windfalls; turning all those weeds into protein. Young trees do need protection against them, however.
What can I do?
Getting your geese
There are around 14 breeds of goose commonly kept in the UK, each classed as light, medium or heavy weight. The breeds also vary in their temperament, tendency to go ‘broody’ (sit on and incubate eggs), noisiness and suitability for raising as meat birds or layers. Many domestic geese are hybrids, which means unpredictable characteristics – but a wider gene pool can mean a healthier and productive life. Read about the different breeds to choose from here.
You can buy goslings, though you would need to provide them with a heat lamp or plate until they are at least 5 weeks old. You could also buy older, fully feathered juvenile geese, or geese of a year or 2 old which will already be laying. One more option is to buy retired breeding stock. These geese will still have may more years to live and will still be fertile enough for you to start your own flock.
If you cannot find the breed you want, buying fertile eggs is also an option. Incubating and hatching eggs is not hard to do with a little research. You will need to buy an incubator and a heat lamp. You will also need an indoor space for the goslings until they are ready to go outside, although this could be a draught-proof shed. If you have previously hatched chicks, bear in mind you will need more space for both the eggs and the goslings. Hand-rearing goslings can help ensure you have friendly geese and reduce problems with aggression; this may be particularly important if you have small children.
Introducing new geese to a flock can be difficult so, if possible, buy all your geese at once. It is usually possible to keep more than one gander in a flock. If you keep more than 3 geese (or 5 of a light breed), and you want to breed them, you will likely need more than one gander to maintain fertility rates.
Geese need shelter at night, in a well-ventilated housing secure from predators. A pair of geese should have at least 1.5m² of floor space; for a small flock a small garden shed is often ideal. Geese do not instinctively go into their house at night as chickens do but they can be easily herded into it. If you provide them with 2ft square nest boxes filled with bedding they are more likely to lay their eggs in the house. However, some still seem to prefer to make their own nests outside. Geese will sometimes bury their eggs so, even in their house, you may need to hunt for them under the bedding.
Domestic geese usually do not fly much, and flying is most likely to occur in the lighter breeds or with younger birds. Once you have chosen your breed it is worth seeking out other keepers and finding out if they have problems with geese flying out of their enclosure, and what their fencing solutions are. Even geese that do fly are very unlikely to fly away if their needs are met. If you need to keep them contained, a 1m fence is usually sufficient. Even a lower barrier may provide enough deterrence (to prevent them trampling your veggies for example).
Geese don’t need a pond. They spend much less time on water than ducks, but they will appreciate a small pool such as a baby bath or child’s sand pit.
Geese can be happy with just a small pond.
If you have a big enough area of good quality grass, geese will need no supplementary feeding during the spring and summer. A quarter of an acre is usually enough for 2 geese. When extra feed is needed geese are usually given wheat, often in a bucket of water. They prefer grass that is relatively short and for that reason are sometimes grazed on a rotation with larger animals such as cows.
If you don’t have sufficient grass for your geese in the spring or summer you can buy pellets – commercially produced compound feed containing all the nutrients a laying goose needs. You should also provide all geese with grit, and all laying geese with oyster shell. As with all waterfowl it is important that they have access to plenty of clean drinking water at all times.
Geese enjoy vegetable scraps. However, bear in mind it is illegal to feed poultry vegetable scraps which have been processed through a kitchen.
Geese, like ducks, tend to be quite healthy and suffer from fewer problems than chickens. Gizzard worms are the most common problem in geese and the most common cause of death in goslings. It is therefore a good idea to worm all goslings at 12 weeks old, even if you are otherwise trying to minimise treatment using pasture rotation and fecal egg counts.
For adult geese, six monthly treatment for worms is recommended, in autumn and spring. If you want to avoid chemical wormers, and avoid contributing to the problem of resistance to medications, you can perform a faecal egg count (FEC) on your geese to check if they need to be wormed. You can do this yourself if you have a microscope, or you can buy a kit and send off a sample. This website has a detailed tutorial on how to conduct FECs, including a list of the equipment needed and images of parasite eggs found in poultry.
The build up of parasites can be minimised by ‘pasture rotation’ – periodically moving your geese to a clean area of grazing. If you’re trying to minimize treatment it’s particularly important to familiarise yourself with the symptoms of gizzard worm and gape worm. Geese rarely need treatment for external parasites if they are otherwise healthy and have access to clean water.
As with all livestock, check your flock every day and find a good vet who can be contacted in an emergency.
Meat production & slaughter
It is legal to slaughter geese at home for consumption by yourself and your immediate family provided it is done humanely. Geese, however, are more difficult to dispatch than smaller poultry and there are more restrictions on the methods which can be used, particularly for birds over 5kg. See the Humane Slaughter Association for more information.
Geese are probably the hardest poultry to pluck. You can make things easier for yourself by plucking them straight after a moult when no pin feathers are present. This is usually around 9, 15 or 20 weeks of age. Slower growth after 17 weeks means that 15 weeks is often the preferred age for slaughter.
For the smallholder, supplying small numbers of birds directly to consumers or to local retailers, it is also possible to slaughter and process your birds on farm, although you must register with your local authority. The humane slaughter association is a good source of information on methods, equipment and courses to attend.
If you plan to produce meat for sale and you slaughter the birds yourself, or send them to a slaughter house but take on the butchery yourself, you will need to follow hygiene regulations and have your premises inspected by Environmental Health on a regular basis. Contact the Food Standards Agency for further information.
Paperwork and regulations
You have to register with DEFRA and standard regulations apply if you keep more than 50 birds (including other types of poultry). There are no regulations for people keeping fewer than 50 birds other than the general rules and regulations covering animal welfare.
Thanks to Lesley Anderson of Permaculture Scotland for information.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's