News

Saving the Greenland white-fronted goose

24.7.2017

When summer ends and the first snows settle in the Arctic, Greenland white-fronted geese begin their long migration back to their overwintering grounds in the British Isles. Their epic journey will cover 3,000km, taking the geese over vast ice-sheets, stormy oceans and volcanic landscapes. They will fly over the Greenland ice cap and then across the Arctic Ocean to Iceland. Once in Iceland they will rest and refuel for about a month before continuing south over the Atlantic to the Celtic fringes of the British Isles where the whole population will spend the winter.

But in the last 17 years, the numbers of Greenland white-fronted geese has dropped by 50 per cent. Each spring we wait for their return to the local peat bogs and flower-rich meadows and each year fewer and fewer return. They are now globally endangered and we don't yet know how and why this is happening.

We are family

They travel in extended family groups, often several generations of the same family. It's something we are familiar with when it comes to meerkats or elephants but these tight-knit family units are extremely rare in birds.

Youngsters often stay with their parents for 2-3 years. Some never actually leave their families. We are not entirely sure why the geese do this but an ongoing relationship with their parents is sure to be mutually beneficial.

As a unit, they can defend food and nest sites more efficiently and they'll benefit from this stability until they are ready to find a mate and try and breed themselves, although this in itself can be challenging – fewer that 10 per cent Greenland white-fronts breed successfully.

A species in decline

The Greenland white-front is strongly linked to us here at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). The first people to identify it as a unique population, separate from the rest of the world's White-fronted Geese, was our founders Sir Peter Scott, and his friend Christopher Dalgety, back in 1948.

After it was discovered, the population gradually fell until the late 1970s. Then, efforts to reduce hunting and protect their key sites led to a spectacular recovery. By 1999, the world population stood at around 36,000 birds. Then came a second unexplained fall in numbers.

Since 2009 we have been working with partners at the University of Exeter and The Greenland White-fronted Goose Study to better understand this bird and the reasons behind its decline. We are all grateful to be supported by Samskip on this project.   

Conservation in action

These geese are creatures of habit and year after year they return to the same fields in Scotland and Ireland. While other geese have adapted to feed on farmland, the Greenland white-fronted geese stick to thetraditional feeding grounds of the crofts, bogs and peatlands. These wetland habitats are under threat and the decline in suitable feeding grounds is likely to be part of the story as to why these birds are decreasing so rapidly.

We are working at several of the key sites that the birds visit here in the British Isles. We are also working in Iceland, where the birds stop off on their long journey to and from Greenland each spring and autumn.

Our team of experts catch and mark birds with uniquely coded neck collars, this helps us recognise and get to know individual birds. Some of the geese are even fitted with special GPS tags, this gives us a real window into their daily lives helping us to examine and identify the threats they face.

More information?

┬╗ Check the website of the WWT


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