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Report reveals dramatic changes in Scotland's waterbirds

Last modified: 28 November 2011

Mallard bathing

Scotland's wintering mallard population has declined by 46% since 1982

It is one of Scotland’s most familiar waterbirds, a regular to ponds and lochs and a favourite in urban parks, but a new report has revealed Scotland’s wintering mallard population has almost halved in the past thirty years.

The latest population figures are among a host of others contained in the State of UK’s Birds 2011. The annual report, published by a coalition of conservation organisations, provides an overview of bird numbers and trends in both the UK and overseas territories.

The mallard, whose numbers are bolstered each winter by an influx of birds from north and eastern Europe, has recorded one of the greatest losses in recent years, with winter populations dropping by approximately 46% in Scotland since 1982 and by 32% since 1998. [see note 1 for UK figures)

Other species, found regularly in Scotland, which have declined since 1998 include the pochard, (approx -70%), goldeneye, (approx -53%) Greenland white-fronted goose (approx -40%), and dunlin, a wading species wintering in mudflats (approx -27%)

The reasons for the changes are not immediately apparent, but results from waterbird monitoring schemes in other parts of Europe have shown that they are likely to be partly explained by some birds not migrating as far west or south, because of milder conditions elsewhere.

However, the report does show that in Scotland, the downward trend is not universal with wintering numbers of wigeon, gadwall, teal and pink-footed geese all increasing over the same period.

Stuart Housden, RSPB Scotland Director, said: “Scotland has some of the most ornithologically important wetland sites in the UK, home to vital populations of waders and waterbirds, and valuable feeding ground for millions of migrating birds. The fact that fewer of these winter visitors are reaching the UK may well reflect progressively milder winter conditions further north and east across Europe.  This is a reminder that we still have much to learn about the long term impacts of climate change and its consequences for wildlife across the globe.

“The future of the Greenland white-fronted goose is of particular concern as Scotland hosts a significantly proportion of the world population of this bird; on Islay, Caithness and the wetlands on the south west.”

Susan Davies, SNH director of policy and advice said: “This assessment of where the UK’s bird populations are at present is important for working out what action needs to be taken both at home and internationally.  Scotland has some world-class wetland sites and our bird populations are a vital indicator of the health of our environment.  We ignore significant changes at our peril."

Neil Calbrade, WeBS Research Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “This shows the value of continued monitoring of wetland sites through long-running schemes such as the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). 

“For more than 60 years, WeBS counters have carried out monthly surveys of over one and a half million birds annually which allows us to build up a picture of the fortunes of these waterbirds and how they may be affected by climate change, habitat loss and development."

David Stroud, Senior Ornithologist, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, said: “Forty years ago, governments agreed the Ramsar Convention on wetlands as an international treaty to stem the loss of the wetlands so critical to waterbirds and other wildlife.  Many of the most important of the UK’s wetlands have since been designated as Ramsar Sites, but the report highlights some of the critically important sites in our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies that remain unprotected.” 

The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 also revealed mixed fortunes for seabirds, many of which breed on Scotland’s coastlines.  Arctic skua, herring gull and kittiwake have all suffered substantial declines since a national seabird-monitoring programme began in 1986.

Similarly, recent dedicated national surveys have revealed that the UK capercaillie population now stands at 1228 individuals, three quarters of which are confined to Strathspey. The future of this bird on Deeside is in peril and concerted effort is needed to ensure it continues to reside there. Likewise, numbers of hen harrier, the country’s most threatened bird of prey, dropped by over 20% in just 6 years from 663 pairs in 2004 to 489 in 2010.

The State of the UK’s Birds 2011 report is produced by a coalition of four NGOs -  RSPB, BirdLife International, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies  - Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (JNCC).