Photo by Igor Podgorny

 

Photo by www.indiewire.com

 

Barnacle goose nest. Photo by Il’ya Ukolov

 

Barnacle goose chicks. Photo by Ol’ga Pokrovskaya

 

Barnacle goose migration, Denmark. Photo by Svetlana Tkach

 

The birth of barnacle goose. A Middle Age engraving.

 

Barnacle goose on her nest. Photo by ИIl’ya Ukolov

 

Kolguyev Island. Photo by Ol’ga Smirnova.

 

Barnacle geese on Kolguyev Island. Photo by Dmitry Deshevykh

 

Barnacle goose with chicks. Photo by N.B. Konyukhov

Barnacle goose down is the rarest wild down in the world

For many centuries eider down was the only down from the nests of wild birds that people learned to harvest, clean and use. But only a few years ago it was discovered that another wild bird has down with the same properties as that of the eider. It is the down of the barnacle goose – a small elegant bird coloured black, white and silver.

Barnacle goose down comes from the most remote, deserted and inaccessible places of the Arctic. The yearly harvest of this down is only several dozen kilograms, which is very little compared to eider down, of which over three tons are collected annually. Of those harvested and sold on the international market, the barnacle goose down is the rarest filler.

 

The birds are so different but their down is so similar

All that was said about the eider down applies to the barnacle goose down as well. It is also obtained from live birds that were not harmed in any way. This down also forms only on the bodies of adult females and only on one part of their bellies from where the bird herself plucks it in order to line her nest. For this reason, the same as with the eider, it is a fully mature down of uniform quality. This down cannot be harvested around the year but forms only during the nesting season. Particles of the barnacle goose down cling together as well as pieces of the eider down do.

This similarity is surprising because one bird is a goose while the eider is a duck. The barnacle goose eats plants while the eider feeds on marine invertebrates and fish. Both of these birds, however, nest in the Arctic, and that is what made their down similar.

 

Eider down (left) and barnacle goose down (right)

 

Mysterious barnacle goose

Why have not people been aware of the barnacle goose down for such a long time? It is because, until very recently, the Europeans would see the barnacle goose only during wintering and migrations. No one knew where they nest, and no one has ever seen the barnacle goose nests or chicks!

In the Middle Ages the barnacle goose was thought to originate from the fruits of the trees growing by the sea. Another version had the barnacle goose come from the water, from the shells of crustaceans called “sea ducks”. The name of this crustacean, “barnacle”, became the name of the bird in English. Because of these legends, the barnacle goose meat was considered suitable to eat during the Great Lent since it was of non-animal origin.

But in reality the barnacle goose would breed the way all the birds do it but in the remote and not easily accessible regions of the Russian Arctic, on Svalbard and in Greenland. Also, the barnacle goose would build its nests on hard-to-reach cliffs, making the descent of the chicks to water look like a real wonder.

 

Closer to people

By the end of the 20th century thanks to protection and, perhaps, climate change, the number of barnacle geese started increasing, and their range expanding. New nesting colonies started forming not on cliffs but on maritime meadows and sand dunes. That’s when people have noticed their gentle light gray down. Still, getting to the places where the barnacle geese nest remains challenging.

Kolguyev Island barnacle geese

Kolguyev Island is located in the Arctic Ocean, east side of the Barents Sea, 80km from the mainland. It is called an island of geese because about one-third of the total European population of the white-fronted goose, bean goose and barnacle goose nest there. There is no greater density of goose nests anywhere else in the Arctic. Kolguyev Island has the word’s largest colony of the barnacle geese, with about 40 000 nests in it.

 

Down harvesting on Kolguyev

In 2019 the Arctic Down Company RU-IS began the commercial harvesting of the barnacle goose down on Kolguyev Island in the Barents Sea.

In harvesting the barnacle goose down the company observes the rules established by the authorities to assure the ecological approach to the process. Local government issues the collection permit that clearly indicates where and when the down is to be harvested. After harvesting a report is submitted. Down harvesting expedition always includes professional ornithologists who monitor the process and evaluate its effect on the birds. Based on the ornithologists’ report local authorities consider the possibility of issuing subsequent permits and the conditions on which they are given.

The barnacle goose down is harvested after the eggs have hatched and the female with chicks has left the nest and took her brood out in search of richer food. Down is taken from abandoned nests in order not to in any manner trouble the bird.

 

Difficulties and joys of the expedition

The harvesting of the barnacle goose down requires an expensive expedition to remote and desolate areas of the Arctic. This hard and long trip needs extensive preparation. The carefully selected expedition crew spends long days doing fieldwork. There is no pier on Kolguyev Island so people, equipment and down have to be carried by a small rubber boat from the shore of the island to the expedition vessel through two-meter high waves.

The Arctic, however, rewards the expedition participants with the exposure to wonderful wild nature, the opportunity to meet a variety of animals and observe unusual picturesque landscapes and vegetation.

 

Cleaning and exporting barnacle goose down

The barnacle goose down as found in nature has much more impurities than the eider down, and its cleaning requires special technology. Jon Sveinsson, the owner of the Miðhús Farm and a co-owner of the Arctic Down Company RU-IS has adapted the eider down cleaning equipment of his construction to be used for cleaning the barnacle goose down, thus becoming the first person to successfully clean and wash this delicate natural material.

This allowed the Arctic Down Company RU-IS to turn the barnacle goose down into an article of export, into the rarest of all commercially available types of down and feather used as a filler. Presently the barnacle goose down is used in Japan for stuffing blankets that sell alongside with eider down stuffed ones and in the same price range.

The Arctic Down Company RU-IS owns the facilities for processing wild down. The facility meets the requirements of the Federal veterinary and phytosanitary services.

Barnacle geese with chicks on Kolguyev Island. Photo by Dmitry Deshevykh