The Norwegian smålens goose, or smålsensgås, is a heritage breed of Norway. (There are only two heritage breeds of geese in Norway – the Norwegian White goose, or norsk hvitgås, is the other.) The smålens goose is considered to be the original land race goose.
The standardization of the breed took place in Østfold, originally called Smaalenene, in the early 1900’s, hence the name for the goose. It is thought that farmers imported the goose from Sweden as they were attracted by the ‘coat of arms’ on the goose’s back. The goose is small, 5.5-6.5 kilos, and are frugal and robust. It is very good at sourcing its own food and a good brooder – well suited for natural production. Geese are bred for meat and the smålens is not competitive in the modern market so their numbers have slowly decreased and now they are in danger of extinction.
Conservation work to preserve this breed started in 1995. In 2006 restrictions were introduced on keeping poultry outdoors because of bird flu. The breed suffered greatly. Today, the Norwegian Genetic Resource Centre, Nordgen, monitors the breed which is now considered highly threatened because there are only about 150 animals left. Smålens are only kept in existence because of the work of hobby farmers.
Our smålensgjess arrived on the farm in September 2011. Moose went of a three day car trip to Nesna in Nordland to collect the geese from a horse rehabilitation farm. As we are developing a living heritage livestock farm, the smålensgås was a natural choice for us. As mentioned above, they are very frugal and good brooders and, of course, well suited to the Arctic climate. There is practically no information about them on the internet, even in Norwegian, so Moose tried to get all the insight he could from the sellers, but this was still not enough to prepare us. This is the one time where experience will have to teach us.
We chose to get six geese as that is all we could fit in the back of the car – Moose was also picking up some new chickens on the way. We were very exited in September. We had been waiting all year for the geese and the sellers wouldn’t allow us to pick them up until the geese had paired up for mating (we had to buy pairs). Even though the sellers have over 40 smålens and were one of the breeders in charge of regenerating the breed by Nordgen, they didn’t seem to know much about them. The geese were pretty much left to themselves. They could wander where they wanted, eat what they wanted and do what they wanted, when they wanted. Predators were one of our main concerns and the sellers said that many of their baby geese had been taken by a fox recently but the sellers still let the geese roam out of sight day and night.
At the Nesna farm the geese were cornered in the barn, Moose just picked the geese out with a finger (4 adults and 2 first years), they were grabbed and loaded into the car. I was very excited when our car pulled up our drive. When I saw the geese for the first time I was amazed at how beautiful they were. Their feathers and colouring are majestic but nobody told me how beautiful their baby blue eyes are.
But boy do you have to be careful how you hold them. One loose wing and they will slap you in the face! To pick a goose up it is best to secure the gooses wings with your hands and then tuck the goose under one arm while the other arm helps support the weight. Our geese don’t snap or bite so there is no fear of loosing an ear.
We put them into an enclosure so they could get used to the farm in safety. That is when I found out that geese like eating dirt.
When I see them all together in pictures it brings tears to my eyes. (For this story, read on!)
The geese are very good at being herded. If they veer of to the side, just a quick arm out will get them back on track again. They are slow movers though. Livestock geese are bred to be heavy, usually too heavy to fly. Our geese fly along the ground as they run but never get lift. Being feisty towards people, even attackers, is no smålensgås. They are lovely and kind. If they don’t like you coming too close they hiss at you but they are calm, very quiet and easy going.
Sometimes they follow us if they want something such as more play water or they hang outside the barn if they want more oats. When they say these geese are frugal they really mean it. Geese are nibblers. The don’t eat a whole meal in one place. We have to be careful how much oats we give the geese as they will take a few mouthfuls and then leave the rest to the native birds (costing us money). We keep our feed bucket on the side to make it easier for our geese to eat from. They like to lay down to nibble at the feed. We mix in shell into the oats for extra grit during winter. (Most birds need a course sand/grit to help them digest their food.) We’ve tried giving them fresh vegetable scraps but they turn their nose up at this.
People say that the only way to be sure of the sex of a goose it to look at the genitals which are conveniently tucked away inside the goose. Some people say you can tell by the size of the neck – males are taller – and others say you can tell by how low the belly hangs – as females droop from laying eggs.
After having geese for a couple of months we couldn’t tell them apart until we started watching them and taking note. We know the sex of our geese because of what they do, not how they look – only after experiencing your geese can you truly know their sex.
Our proud head gander.
Our top female goose.
Our yearling female goose.
Over winter the geese have been outside all the time. When it is windy they go into the barn opening for shelter (it is hard to get these geese to use purpose built things like shelters and nesting boxes). The geese don’t mind eating the snow but on milder days we give them a tub of warm water to play with. We feed the geese silage (fermented grass) and they love it. They even go to the bails themselves to get their own grass. But I was not prepared for all the pooping. In the winter it is ok as the new layers of snow overs it, but in the autumn it was hard to walk in the field without treading on it (I gave up in the end).
We have had to put up a temporary fence across the drive. (Our farm has a country road through it and is split on either side.) The geese have free reign to go anywhere on the farm on the one side but they prefer to stay around the barn which is fine with us. However, come spring and they just want to go downhill all the time to the other side. It is because their instinct tells them that if you go downhill you will find water. The river is on the other side and is certainly not melted yet (we still have snow mobilers racing on it). And no, geese don’t need water to breed, like a lot of people think. So to keep our geese safe, a thigh high fence is good enough to keep them in but more water is needed for their swim tubs to keep them happy.
Even though having our geese is a delight it hasn’t been without pains. We had brought two husky puppies to the farm in January to begin our dog sledding adventure. They were very good dogs but the breed is also known for hunting. We were starting to teach them not to hunt our own animals. One day I came home and one of the huskies was covered in blood. A quick check and it was ok. Then I went around the farm checking all the other animals – I couldn’t find the youngest male goose. It took us three days to find it. It didn’t look like the husky had killed it (it was just a little puppy) – it was something else and the husky just found it.
Two days later I raced out of the barn to the clammer of dogs and geese. I found the two huskies playing tug-o-war with the wings of the youngest female goose. That day we posted an ad on finn.no with two free huskies. We couldn’t keep the dogs because they had blod på tann! (Blood on their teeth – now that they have tasted blood they will want more.) We found them lovely homes in other parts of the country but bye-bye went my dream of entering the Finnmarksløpet one day. Living on a farm you have to make tough choices – shall we keep the dime-a-dozen husky dogs that will now hunger after blood or shall we keep the heritage geese that are going extinct? But we still didn’t know what killed the first goose – a fox or a lynx, maybe?
Mating season came upon us too quickly. The geese are used to a warmer climate and so have started laying eggs in March. This is normal but living in the Arctic everything must happen later – we don’t get warm til May/June. It is still snowing here and there are no leaves and twigs for nests. We made rough nesting spaces with lots of straw in hope they will make their own nests. Instead, one goose decided to collect all the dried leaves that had blown into the barn in autumn to make a nest in between two pallets on the floor leading up to the silage machine. It is very hard to see and, in fact, it must have been a week before we found it. We knew they were laying somewhere.
This is a tragedy. Our goose eggs are so precious. We want our geese to lay naturally but the risk of their eggs freezing is too great. We still get below five degree temperatures now. So every day Moose and I stalk the nest and steal the eggs laid. I say ‘eggs’ because all three females have decided to use the same nest, no matter how much hay and dried leaves we have provided for them. (I went sweeping around the barn trying to get any loose leaf I could find. This autumn I will be saving a bunch of leaves for next nesting season for sure!)
We have left two of the dirty eggs in the nest so the geese don’t fret about missing eggs but no more than two because we don’t want the geese to start sitting. We can’t have them sitting too early. Smålens only lay about 20-30 eggs a season, some may not be fertile, but if they lay six and then sit, they will not lay any more eggs for the season (unless something happens to them, like being crushed or stolen by us.) We want to collect the first lot of 20 excess eggs and hopefully it will be warm enough soon for them to sit on their own last 10 – but now we have the problem of ‘nest-mates’.
We have five eggs incubating at the moment in our chicken egg incubator. Incubatoring goose eggs is more tricky than chicken eggs as they need more care, moisture and even egg ‘bathing’. We have another 11 in the bath room on the cool floor (under the sink). We are desperately waiting for another incubator to arrive from Trondheim but because of Easter (when everything stops in Norway) it has been nearly two weeks. After a week, eggs decrease rapidly in viability. We can’t put them outside again and hope that the geese will sit on them because of the cold. We feel a great responsibility to keep this wonderful breed alive and the days are just slipping through our fingers.
After a youngest gander (male goose) was killed there was a bit of chaos amongst the others. One goose didn’t have a partner and so desperately tried to connect with another couple. This pushed everything else out of balance. It ended up that the head gander and our other gander both had one goose each but were now sharing a goose too. Oh, the fights! Moose found the best way to get their one track mind off killing each other was to grab one in mid-fight and throw him (gently) in the other direction to make him have to fly away.
One morning we found the second gander dead – our head gander won the fight. Sadly, on investigating the body, it suddenly dawned on us – the young ganger that we had lost a month before must have been killed the same way. Nowhere does it say that ganders fight to the death! We were devastated that we had to loose two geese for us to learn a lesson: you need to have a ratio of one gander to three geese for there to be peace. And you need to have a big enough flock for there to be a good pecking order with enough geese to go around.
Learning that these geese don’t just like to pair up – they bunch up – was a hard lesson. Now we only have one tough gander and three geese and it is very peaceful. The goose which lost her partner is trying to fit in. It has so far been a week and she in now allowed to sit with the others. We hope our last gander accepts her as we want her eggs to be fertile.
All this activity on the farm has helped us decide that we do not want to do ‘natural’ farming, we want to do responsible farming. We now know we don’t want to just let our geese be geese, as advised (or you could say ‘pushed’), we want our geese to have a good chance at surviving this modern world and it looks like they need us to do so. I think we are in uncharted territory, or undocumented territory at least. Raising smålens geese is another adventure that we will continue with discovering Norway.