(de Nederlandse versie van dit artikel kunt u hier lezen)

Geese are commercially kept for their meat, eggs, foie gras and down. As geese don't lay many eggs, the market for consumer eggs is minimal.  The main countries of the European Union with intensive geese farming  are France (foie gras and meat), Hungary (meat, foie gras and down),  Bulgaria (meat and foie gras ), Romania (meat and down) and Poland (meat and down).  There is still a small scale foie gras production in Belgium. The UK shows an increase in raising freerange geese for their meat.  In the USA, California and South Dakota are the main geese-raising states. China is world’s largest producer of down.

The goose is one of the most intelligent of birds. It has a very good memory and does not forget people, animals or situations easily. Geese are tremendously social animals and live harmoniously amongst themselves and with other creatures, also humans. Each bird has it's own personality and the relationships that they form in a flock are both amazing and interesting to watch. 

In the wild and, to a lesser extent, in a domestic flock, the bond between a breeding pair of geese is very strong and carries over from year to year. Once they have formed a bond they are  faithfull and they show astonishing loyalties. “Divorce” is extremely rare. Interestingly, divorced pairs are usually unsuccessful at raising young.

If a mate dies, the surviving bird often exhibits signs of loss. They swim or walk with their necks angled forward as if looking for lost mates. In flight, lone birds call plaintively for missing partners.

Their desire to be good parents is very strong when given the opportunity to do so.  Once the young goslings have hatched they maintain tight family units. Whenever family members have been separated by space or time they greet one another when they join by waving their necks and honking loudly.

Geese are waterfowl. They originally live in or around water. The fact that most geese are kept without water already shows how adaptable they are. But they love to preen and paddle, and some of the larger breeds need the extra buoyancy for successful mating. They  can become quite old: more than 20 years for the smaller breeds is not uncommon. 

Knowing all this it is not difficult to understand that intensively farmed geese live an awful short life considering the poor conditions they are usually given and the terrible treatment that they endure.

Breeding parents

Artificial insemination is usually not used for the commercial production of goslings, so from the moment they start to lay, breeding animals are kept together to produce fertile eggs, usually 4-6 females with one gander. For 4 to 5 years they live in confinement either on a raised floor (0.5 m² per bird) or on deep litter (1.0 m² of floor space). This could be in barns with or without roofs. They get seperate nest areas where the geese can lay their eggs. Sometimes they do get access to an outside yard with a concrete floor and/or pasture. However access to swimming water is rare.

Three months before egg production the young breeding animals go through a special preparation period with food deprivation and a light program to “train them” for production. Before they start laying eggs the animals are plucked alive three times. The egg laying period is in springtime, but it is common practice to generate a second egg laying period with light programs, so that over a period of four years the geese will be able to complete six full laying cycles.

Meat birds

Once the goslings have hatched they are raised under lights in big barns on straw. Then after 3 to 4 weeks the so called 'young roast goose' will be fattened up and brought to market at 7 to 8 weeks. The animals are deprived of water for 12 hours before slaughter. These animals will usually not be plucked alive for their down. It is the somewhat older meat goose that is plucked once or twice. They are fattened up until the age of 16 to 22 weeks. These birds are kept in dense groups of 5 to 6 geese per m², 100 to 120 animals in a group.

Goose Down

Feathers can be plucked from carcasses but feathers from live animals are considered better quality. Although plucking of live animals is banned in the European Union, it is common practice in China. The plucking should only be done during the natural moult of the young  birds, so that it will not harm the animals and create unnecessary stress. A young goose born in springtime can be plucked at its first moult at 9-10 weeks of age and this can be repeated after another 6-7 weeks. Once adult, geese can be plucked 3 to 4 times a year, every time that they go through their natural moult. Plucking should be done under calm conditions, because stress and fear in the animals could make the plucking of feathers more difficult (because stress and fear, the feather becomes more attached to the skin). Feathers should only be plucked from the breast, the belly and the back  of the animal. No plucking should be done on the wings, the head, the neck and the tail. Feathers should be pulled out in the direction of growing and not against it.

So much for the theory... the reality of live plucking is shockingly painful as a Swedish documentary series revealed in February 2009. It captured the disturbing practice at a Hungarian goose farm. The film shows birds on their backs screaming and struggling to free themselves from their tormentors as their down is ripped from their bodies at high speed. Afterwards, several birds are left paralyzed on the ground with large flesh wounds. The birds with big gaping wounds are then sown back together with needle and thread on site by the workers themselves and without any anesthetic.  The documentary estimates that as much as 50-80 percent of all down on the world market is plucked from live birds. Veterinarians and even geese breeders call this practice "extremely cruel," particularly the plucking itself and the tying of the birds' legs over their backs. 

Such films and the bad publicity that accompany them shocked some manufacturers of products that use down and feathers to create the Responsible Down Standards. However, although the standard specifically refers to waterfowl, it is not a requirement, only a recommendation, that the birds have access to water for their behavioural needs. Another, major problem, is that it is even with the best of intentions, it is extremely difficult to monitor all the conditions. PETA discovered in 2015 during an investigation in China, when they discovered that live plucking is still rife, even amongst suppliers to firms that apply the RDS.

The practice of plucking feathers from live geese is prohibited in the European Union as it does not comply with the provisions of Article 3 of Council Directive 98/58/EC which requires that "Member States shall make provision to ensure that the owners or keepers take all reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of animals under their care and to ensure that those animals are not caused any unnecessary pain, suffering or injury". The European Union is a contracting party of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals kept  for Farming Purposes of the Council of Europe. Both the Convention and its applicable provisions  which are specified in several Recommendations are part of EU law. The Recommendation on geese adopted in 1999 provides in paragraph 3 of Article 23 that "feathers, including down, shall not be plucked from live birds”. However, "gathering" or "harvesting" from live birds is allowed: this differs from plucking in that, during the natural moult period, only ripe feathers are collected. They can only be removed by brushing or combing: grasping the feathers is not allowed. There are two major problems with this: it doesn't solve the problem of the birds being handled and restrained during the process and not all the geese moult at precisely the same time and not all the feathers become ripe at the same time. So either the geese have to be handled a number of times over a few days which is extremely stressful for them or the people gathering the feathers take all of them, whether ripe or not, in one session. We have a suspicion, that as the people are paid by the amount of down that they harvest, not the number of birds that they handle, there is a strong temptation to pluck the unripe feathers at the same time as the ripe ones are harvested.
As well as the potential for direct harm and suffering to geese and ducks caused by the down and feather industry, it is important to take into account that they are a profitable by-product of the meat and foie gras industries. The money brought in by selling feathers and down could make the difference between a  meat/foie gras farm being profitable or going out of business. So, if you want to stop the exploitation of geese and ducks, then avoiding down and feather products is a very efficient strategy.

The European Food Safety Authority Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) has launched an online public consultation in 2010 on its draft scientific report on practice of harvesting feathers from live geese for down production. The consultation aimed to gather the widest range of views to finalise the work and provide the most up-to-date and comprehensive scientific advice on live plucking. The results are published in this report

Foie gras

Many geese are kept for the production of foie gras (fatty liver). Because of welfare reasons foie gras production in the EU is banned in the Netherlands,  six of the nine Austrian provinces, Tsjechia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Ireland, Sweden, Switserland en the UK as in California Argentina, Turkye en Israël. In the EU foie gras is produced in Belgium, Bulgaria, Spain, France and Hongary. Read further here, here or here.

The following articles/sites were used to write this article:

Personality of Geese Determines Their Foraging Behaviour

Understanding the behaviour of domestic geese

Goose production

 Back to poultry

 These photos were published in Goose Production from FAO

Newly hatched goslings with feed, water and a protective guard (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) (Source: Buckland, 1995) 

Geese on slatted floors (France) 

Geese in floor pens being fattened for market (Poland) (Source: Buckland, 1995)

Plastic flooring suitable for both young and adult geese (France)

Geese on a deep litter inside the barn and a concrete yard outside (Hungary)

Geese on a pasture with deep litter inside the barn (Poland)

Geese in elevated pens being fattened for market (Poland) (Source: Buckland, 1995)

Plucking feathers from live adult geese (Poland) (Source: Buckland, 1995) 

Video below 


(please note that they don't show images of catching, transporting and slaughtering the birds, which is most stressful for these sentient animals)  


Video below 

Goose farming in the UK for the christmas market