Disappearing white-fronts

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Loch Lomond NNR

Regular readers get to hear about our monthly winter goose roost counts and the trials and tribulations involved (see here, here and here for examples).

But you might wonder why we have to go to such lengths of human resilience to find out how many geese are at Loch Lomond in the winter.

Well, it is all about the Greenland White-fronted Geese. This race of white-fronted goose was only described by Peter Scott in 1948 and 70 years ago very little was known about this rare sub-species.  It was only in the late 1970s, early 1980s that counts of the whole wintering population were started and at the same time the geese became legally protected from shooting in Scotland and Ireland. By the late 1990s the population was peaking at 35, 000 individuals but since then has been dropping to a current population of only about 20, 000 individuals. So what has caused this decline?

By looking at survival counts of marked birds it has been found that it isn’t adult birds dying that is the problem but a lack of reproduction. And a changing climate is behind this. These birds migrate to west Greenland to breed in the spring but changing North Atlantic weather patterns are resulting in lots of late spring snowfall which covers the grass that females need to eat to develop a clutch of eggs. There is also competition on whatever snow-free grass feeding areas are available from larger and more numerous Canada geese that has spread north. The population is only sustained through occasional good breeding years which bring a larger number of young birds into the population but these don’t happen often enough.

Though the Loch Lomond population is only a small part of the larger UK and Ireland population but when the population is dropping every group of birds are important.

The prospects of this species is currently bleak with predictions suggesting further changes to the climate. And the decline and feared loss of this enigmatic and secretive goose, due to changing weather patterns in the Arctic that are brought about by the impacts of Society’s chosen lifestyles, is a perfect illustration of the global scale of changes in biodiversity that are happening all around us and the effect that we ourselves are having.

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