Geese have always had the reputation of being guardians of the farmyard but, for breeders and waterfowl keepers, they have a wider use as pure breeds for exhibition, 'lawn mowers' and pets. Well reared, geese are responsive, intelligent birds and deserve a better reputation than they are often given.
White Sebastopol goose
Most breeds are descended from the wild European goose, the greylag. However, in the Far East, the Chinese people developed two types of domestic geese from the wild swan goose. These are now recognized as the familiar Chinese goose (in white and in the grey wild pattern) plus the majestic 'African' goose which originates, in fact, from SE China.
Although the ancestors of the domestic geese are supposed to be two distinct species, the domestic geese related to the greylag and the swan goose do interbreed. These crosses have produced the different breeds of Russian geese such as the Tula, Asamas and Kholmogory, plus the beautiful blue Steinbacher goose recently imported into the UK from Germany. Out of the 14 standardized breeds, only three - the Brecon Buff and arguably the Pilgrim and West of England - are indigenous to the UK.
Exhibition Africans weigh up to 26lbs, the size that they reportedly reach in their area of origin in SE China. The large head, with a stout bill, carries a crescent-shaped dewlap. The body is large and quite long, but carried fairly upright giving the birds a height of 3 feet or more in the show pen. Like the lighter weight Chinese, they are a most attractive colour with a brown stripe down the back of the neck in contrast to the cream dewlap and throat. The body feathers are ashy brown, edged with a lighter shade. Africans are bold, vocal birds and appear very imposing because of their height. Hand reared, they make wonderful pets in the large exhibition strains.
The American buff
Standardised in the USA in 1947, this breed was first imported into the UK in the 1970s. It was standardised in the UK in 1982. It is believed to originate from Pomerania, and to have an origin linked with the Pomeranian goose, which are known for producing buff or buff backed geese.
This breed has similar plumage markings to the Toulouse and the wild greylag, and like most domestic geese, is dual lobed. There has often been confusion between this breed and the Brecon buff, as its plumage has the same warm orange-buff ground colour. Unlike the Brecon, it has orange beak and legs. Like the Brecon, the rich buff of their plumage tends to become much paler with exposure to sunlight, so the best colour is seen in birds that have recently moulted. The eyes are dark hazel with an orange cilium. White feathers and pinkish beak and feet are considered faults in this breed. These birds are also taller and longer necked than the Brecon buff.
The American buff is now classed as a heavy breed, and the size has increased considerably in recent years (references from the 1970s give a weight for the gander of 8kg (18lbs), whereas the BWA standards now give a weight of up to 13kg (28lbs). The American buff is therefore a good choice for producing a good sized bird for the table, and is also hardy and reasonably calm in nature.
American Buff goose
The Embden originated in Germany, but is a popular breed in the UK and USA. Along with the Toulouse, it was the first goose breed standardized in the UK in 1865. Birds in the UK differ from standard-bred birds in Germany. British birds are heavier and reach up to 32 lbs in exhibition strain ganders. Any white goose is not an Embden. There are many varieties of commercial geese which are white, but these are generally smaller, and also easier to breed because they have been developed as commercial crosses for a high output. The true Embden has a proud stature and reaches a metre in height. Ganders weigh 28-34lbs and females can reach 28lbs. They typically lay about 30 eggs.
Toulouse range tremendously in size and quality. Exhibition birds weigh 20-24lbs in the females and 26-30lbs in the ganders. They are usually grey, the pearly grey being preferred to dark grey or brown-grey birds. Toulouse have also been bred in white (rare) and buff, but grey is the most popular and readily obtainable.
Because of their weight and blocky body, with a prominent keel on the breast, these birds should not be rushed about and are happiest on flat ground. They are popular as garden pets because of their quiet temperament and also because of their looks. The dewlap on the throat and loose feathers gives them a soft appearance, and they are rarely aggressive. The breed is often in high demand but relatively short supply because the exhibition quality birds are hard to breed (because they are big).
Medium geese are mostly between 16-20lbs in the gander and 14-18 lbs in the goose. Originally, they were the 'farmyard geese' - not so large as to need intensive feeding, but big enough to provide a suitable carcass for the table at Christmas.
The Brecon Buff
The history of the Brecon Buff was documented by its originator, Rhys Llewellyn from South Wales. He discovered buff females in the farmyard geese of the Brecon Beacons and, using a white gander, produced a pure-breeding buff flock in 4-5 generations. These geese are still very popular in Wales where both exhibition breeders and farmers like to preserve high quality stock.
Adult birds weigh 14-20 lbs, the weight depending upon how they have been fed. The plumage is an attractive shade of buff, the main body feathers being fringed with almost white. This is the same pattern as the Toulouse, for the European domestic geese all derive from the same basic stock - the greylag.
The Brecon is distinguished from its larger relative, the American Buff, not only by its weight but also by its pink feet and beak, which are characteristic of this breed.
Buff Back and Grey Back
Pied geese are also typical European geese. The pied or 'spot' gene is popular in many countries surrounding the North Sea and Baltic. In Sweden, large grey back 'spot' geese are known as Skane gans; in the UK 'spot' geese are called the Grey Back and Buff Back. There are differences in size and shape between the regions, but the 'spot' colour pattern is the same.
Buff Backs are similar in weight to the Brecons. They can be produced by crossing a white goose with a buff gander, but several generations are required to perfect the markings.
'Pomeranian' is strictly a type rather than a colour. This breed is standardized in Germany in white, whole grey and greyback. In the UK, greyback is the popular colour, but the grey is equally popular on the continent.
The greyback Pomeranian differs from the UK Greyback in that the undercarriage has a single, central lobe in the Pomeranian. The German birds also have a distinctive, bold head, and an orange-pink bill - rather than just plain orange.
West of England
The distinctive feature of this breed is that it is autosexing - not only are the adult male and female distinct but it is possible to sex goslings at hatch, as the females have grey patches on the beak rather than the plain pale orange of the male. Adult males are white, but may have the odd grey feather, and females have a saddleback grey and white pattern, with grey on the head and neck.
Somewhat larger than the Pilgrim, this is a medium goose, with ganders up to 9kg and geese up to 8kg. Although only first standardised in 1999, the breed is an ancient one, similar birds being found in farmyard stock throughout the UK and particularly in the West Country. Like other medium breeds, they are hardy birds which grow quickly and do well as meat producers. They are quite calm birds and will become confiding with human contact. They lay 30-40 eggs a year and rear their own young readily.
West of England geese
Light geese are mostly between 10-16 in the gander and 8-14 lbs in the goose. Some were the smaller 'farmyard geese' of Europe - good egg layers and often good sitters. The category also includes the Asiatic Chinese, the best egg-layer of all the breeds of geese.
The Czech is a small, lively white goose, even smaller than the Roman. It has its origins in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) and was standardised in the UK in 2008.
The body is plump, broad and oval in profile with little sign of a paunch, although some older females may have a single-lobed paunch. The neck is sturdy and only slightly curved. The bill is orange-red with a pale bean, and the legs are also orange-red.
Classed as a light breed, the gander weighs from 5-5.5kg (11-12lbs) and the goose from 4.0-4.5kg (9-10lbs).
Chinese geese come in two colour forms: the white and the brown (also called 'grey' or 'fawn'). The brown is the same colour as the brown African. Both breeds come from China, and were developed from the wild swan goose. The larger African or 'Lion Head' was reared as a table bird; the lighter weight Chinese produces more eggs.
Chinese are light-weight, graceful birds. They have a long, slightly curved neck and a rounded, prominent knob on the head which is much larger in the gander. The function of this is not known. This feature is seen in mute swans, but seems to have developed in the Chinese goose after domestication from the wild swan goose.
Chinese are the noisiest breed of geese, and have been employed as 'watchdogs'. They can be very independent and quite aggressive. But hand-reared, they are tame and amenable. The birds mostly kept and exhibited in Britain now are the lighter-weight 'American' exhibition geese which are far more showy than the 'English' type of the pre-1970s.
Ganders are 10-12 lbs in weight; geese 8-10 lbs. Females can lay as many as 80 eggs per annum, and may lay in the autumn as well as spring and early summer. Not all strains are this prolific.
The Pilgrim goose was developed and standardized in the USA by Oscar Grow. He recognized the sex-linked colour of the breed, which can be seen even in the down colour and bill colour of the goslings on hatching. He did stress, however, that most of the birds breed true to colour; there can sometimes be white females. It is difficult to get a 100% pure-breeding strain.
Ganders are white with some light grey allowed in the plumage on the rump and secondary feathers. Geese are light grey, and have white feathers at the front of the head, the white extending around the eyes with age. Weights vary from 14-18 lbs in the gander and 12-16 lbs in the goose. The females are average layers, often laying two clutches, like the Brecon, of about 30 eggs in total. Pilgrims are renowned for their sweet nature, which applies if they have been handled as young goslings.
Romans are small, chubby, white geese. White geese are said to have raised the alarm when Rome was attacked by the Gauls, hereby saving the city. Flocks of small white geese became common in central Europe. They may have evolved independently from the goose of Rome - or be descended from these 'Italian' geese.
There are several regional white breeds of geese in central Europe. Diepholtz geese are slightly larger than our Roman; Czech geese are slightly smaller. Whatever the country, people do seem to like small, white geese as a contrast to the coloured and the larger breeds.
The UK standard for the Roman specifies ganders at 12-14 lbs and geese at 10-12 lbs. The females are good layers, starting as early as January, and laying several clutches up to early summer. They can lay up to 60 eggs per year in some strains. Temperament varies according to the strain, and how they have been handled as youngsters.
Sebastopols were probably introduced into the UK in 1859. Whether or not they came from Sebastopol itself (in the Crimea) is unknown. According to Edward Brown (1929), white birds with feather curl come from countries surrounding the Black Sea, and along the Danube. Most Sebastopols in the UK are white, but there is also a buff variety. If the spot gene is introduced, non-standard buff-back and grey-back Sebastopols will result.
There are two plumage forms: the smooth-breasted and the frizzle. The frizzle has curly feathers all over, except for the head and upper neck. The smooth-breasted form has long, curled scapulars, thigh and wing coverts. Sebastopols look spectacular in new autumn plumage, but they need good water conditions to keep them clean through the year. The geese can be good layers, producing up to 40 eggs per annum.
This breed was introduced into the UK in the 1990s. It has become very popular because of its calm, tame temperament. Originally produced as a 'fighting goose', its confidence with people makes it the ideal pet.
The breed was originally standardized in Germany in grey, but the blue form is the most popular in Britain. A distinctive colour-feature is the black 'lipstick' effect of the break serrations, and the black bean. It is quite a small goose, ranging from 11-15 lbs. The geese are not particularly good layers, but the eggs are comparatively easy to hatch in incubators. These geese are also good sitters and mothers.