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New report highlights the value of the UK's wetlands

Last modified: 22 April 2015

Flock of avocets on the Humber estuary

Avocet numbers have increased by 58 per cent in the past 10 years

Image: Graham Catley

Data collected by thousands of Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) volunteers, just published in a new report, show the importance of the UK's wetlands for millions of wintering waterbirds, including many ducks, geese, swans and waders.

Key wetland sites are located right across the UK, providing a wide range of waterbirds with a safe and resource-rich environment. 

Many of these important sites have been designated as Special Protected Areas (SPAs) under the European Commission's Birds Directive, which came into force in 1979; the volunteer-collected data from WeBS are used to inform these designations.      

The latest WeBS report draws attention to declining population trends of some familiar waterbirds, including the mallard and shelduck. Although mallards are still a regular sight on inland and coastal wetlands, numbers have declined by 39% at sites monitored by WeBS since the mid-1980s.

Similarly, the shelduck - which inhabits the UK's estuaries outside of the breeding season - has dropped by 23% over the same period, with an especially marked decline in the last four years.  

Why is this happening?

The reasons behind these declines are unclear and likely to be complex. However the population changes have occurred against a backdrop of climate-driven shifts in distribution of other waterbirds, eg. smew. The changing climate may therefore be affecting mallard and shelduck too - and understanding this is vital for an appropriate conservation response.

Many familiar coastal waders, such as the dunlin, ringed plover, curlew and redshank, have declined in recent decades - although some others, such as avocet and black-tailed godwit, have increased. The wintering populations of avocet and black-tailed godwit have increased by 58% and 49% respectively over the past ten years. 

SPAs in the south of the UK, such as the Exe estuary and Poole Harbour, have proved particularly important for avocets. 

The WeBS report, published annually as a paper report and, also available as an interactive online interface, makes information readily accessible to anyone interested in birds and the environment. The latest report, Waterbirds in the UK 2013/14, covers the period up to June 2014.

'It is crucial that the network of Special Protected Areas continues to be cherished and protected'

Simon Wotton, from the RSPB, said: "The network of Special Protected Areas provides a safe haven for large numbers of our wintering waterbirds each winter and has played a crucial part in the success stories of the avocet, black-tailed godwit and many other wetland birds. It is crucial that the network of sites across the UK and Europe continue to be cherished and protected so that birds and other wildlife have a secure future."   

Chas Holt, WeBS Coordinator at BTO, said: "In 2013/14, WeBS volunteers contributed thousands of hours to help monitor the UK's internationally important wintering waterbirds. The data collected are used to assess the size of waterbird populations, determine trends in numbers and distribution, and assess the importance of individual sites for waterbirds, in line with the requirements of international conservation conventions and directives. None of this would have been possible without the efforts of the 3,100 volunteers who have given so freely of their time and enthusiasm."   

Richard Hearn, WWT, said: "The mallard, with the male's splendid green head, is the archetypal duck for most of us. Wintering birds are in decline in the UK and it's not yet clear why. So, in the meantime the surest way to keep them safe is to keep their wetland habitats protected and well managed, both here and in the rest of Europe."

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Wetland Bird Survey Report - Waterbirds in the UK 2013/14 (3.1Mb)
The annual report of the Wetland Bird Survey

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