Janice Houghton-Wallace looks at this small white goose with a colourful history.

The goose that has connections with Ancient Rome has lived with the legend that it saved Rome from the Gauls in the late 300s BC. The Capitoline Geese were considered sacred and kept by Juno, who was the goddess of women and marriage as well as protector and special councilor of the state.

Rome was set to be taken by the Gauls but as the marauders began to enter the city by cover of darkness at night, the geese heard them and started to honk loudly and flap their wings. Dogs had not been wakened but as Livy observed: “The assailants were not unperceived by some geese which, being sacred to Juno, the people had spared even in the present great scarcity of food, a circumstance to which they owed their preservation.”

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A flock of Romans and other friends. Photo: Jenny Pritchard

The commotion grabbed the attention of Marcus Manlius who was on guard that night and he alerted the Romans who counteracted the attack. From that day onwards the sacred geese of Juno have been recognised as the geese that saved Rome. In times to come, the geese were also used as guards themselves, accompanying Roman armies wherever they ventured.

Livy and other writers of the period described geese that were both white and coloured. Later it was established that the different colours denoted two varieties of geese rather than distinct breeds. Brown, in 1929 wrote that the Roman goose was pure white and this white domestic goose could have been spread throughout Europe by the Roman Army, being used not only in guarding situations but also in commercial dealings.

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An afternoon nap on the lawn. Photo: Clare Lovegrove

Some argue that the small white goose originated from the plains of the Danube where livestock and improved livestock breeding were of paramount importance to the farmers of the area. It is believed that quite quickly, the domestication of these geese was taken up by various countries and it is reported that when Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC the sacred geese were found to be already here.

However, it is also recorded that these geese were imported into Britain in the late 1800s, whilst the 1982 edition of the British Poultry Standards states that Romans were introduced into Britain during the early twentieth century.

Either way, during this period there was immense interest in importing waterfowl and geese in particular. Present day British Poultry Standards gives the origin of the Roman goose as broadly Europe but early writings do seem to relate to the provenance of this small white goose as being specifically Italy. One of the early references to white ‘Italian geese’ in Britain appeared in the magazine ‘Fowls for Pleasure and Profit’ published in 1888. The author writes that a pair of ‘Italian geese’ was exhibited at the 1887 Diary Show but through a mistake the birds were not judged. The report goes on to claim that possibly, this oversight unnecessarily delayed the recognition and standardization of the breed.

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"This is what I was told to do." Photo: Clare Lovegrove

Once the Roman goose was recognised it soon became popular because although it was smaller than other breeds, it stands its own ground when it comes to being a layer. Wright in 1901 writes: “A variety…highly recommended about ten years ago under the name of Italian geese has been stated to be unusually prolific, laying 50 to 60 eggs in one laying and sometimes a second.”

The Roman goose was also considered a good utility bird for it has a very plump although small meaty carcass.

Today this pure breed goose is considered rare and its future in the UK lies with only a handful of serious breeders. It is an ideal breed for the smallholder for it is active, loves to forage and graze and has a friendly temperament. Being naturally alert – just like its ancestors – they make good watch geese. As well as being good layers they also make good mothers.

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Bathtime. Photo: Clare Lovegrove

The Roman is classified as a light goose and is very compact with a deep body. The plumage is pure white; beak, legs and feet are orange-pink and eyes are light blue. There is also a crested variety of Roman goose, called Tufted Roman, which has raised feathers on the crown of the head. The front edge of the tuft should begin just over the back of the eyes and resembles a tiny helmet perched on the top of the head. This tuft is unusual in geese, although it can sometimes appear in Pilgrims. The tuft or crest on a Roman goose should not be associated with that of a crested duck, which is produced as a result of a fault in the skull.

The Tufted Roman goose is rarer that the smooth headed Roman in the UK but is very popular in America and Australia.

An adult male Roman weighs 5.5 – 6kg (12 – 14lb) and an adult female weighs 4.5 – 5kg (10 – 12 lbs).

Jenny Pritchard has kept geese for thirty years and was attracted to the Roman by the orange beak and blue eyes. “The Roman is easy going and being a small goose is much easier to handle than some of the larger breeds. I think of a Roman as the “story book goose”.

Clare Lovegrove is also passionate about the breed having kept some from childhood days. “When I was young there seemed to be plenty of Roman geese around but more recently it was harder to source a new gander. They certainly make an ideal smallholder’s goose so long as there is plenty of grazing for them and fox proof overnight housing. I really would encourage people to keep them as they have a gentle nature, good laying capabilities and are rare. I have regular customers for the eggs for eating.”

Thanks to:

Denise Moss, Secretary, The Goose Club: 01437 563309, contact@gooseclub.org.uk, gooseclub.org.uk

Dr. Chris Ashton: ‘Domestic Geese’ published by The Crowood Press Llt, ISBN 978 1 84797 215 6

Clare Lovegrove, 01531 650918, clare@pro-agri.co.uk

Jenny Pritchard

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This article was written exclusively for Smallholder magazine. For more like this subscribe here, call 01778 392011, email subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk or buy from a newsagent.