My intention was to write a blog all about the wonders of the Greenland White Fronted Goose, their journey from their breeding grounds on the low arctic tundra of Western Greenland to the Celtic fringes of Britain via southern Iceland. And trust me they are fascinating birds, like a lot of other goose species they are highly social, have a fascinating life cycle and are extremely site faithful. It is this last fact that made me want to change the direction of this post. The stark reality is that the wintering Greenland White Fronted Goose population has declined rapidly on the Dyfi over the past few decades, in just the past ten years the number has dropped from 106 in the winter of 1997/98 to 25 this year, so we face the very real possibility that the wonderful high pitched call of these charismatic geese could no longer be a feature of our valley. This is the down side of birds which are so highly site faithful, once they are gone they are gone.
So what do we do? We are faced with a species that doesn’t breed in Britain, whose breeding success is being impacted by a shifting climate in the low arctic, and whose breeding condition is partly dictated by availability of food in southern Iceland in Spring. Well the first thing to do is to recognise that a group of very dedicated scientists and conservationists have been studying these geese for a long time, from expeditions to the breeding grounds to satellite tagging projects there is a lot of data, information and advice available. For example an awful lot of the knowledge I have picked up about the geese has been from reading the work of Dr Anthony Fox who has been studying this species for many years and Carl Mitchell who too has been working for decades to conserve Greenland White fronted Geese.
What comes out from that data is that these geese, like all birds, have a complex life cycle. Their ability to breed successfully is heavily influenced by their body condition when they arrive in Greenland, their body condition when they arrive in Greenland is in turn linked to how much condition they have put on on their stop-over in Iceland and this is all dictated by the condition they are in when they leave Britain. The low breeding success of these birds is in large part caused by the fact that they will not breed if they are not in good condition, in many cases they won’t even attempt to breed if their body condition is not good enough.
Like many geese they lose weight in the short winter days simply because there is less light and therefore less time to feed, added to that the cold conditions mean that food is less nutritious and less readily available. In early spring they begin to put on weight, some of this is stored fat but a lot of the extra weight goes into increased muscle mass, in short their bodies start to change from being designed for short flight and fat storage to long haul flight and muscle mass. The more weight they put on and the stronger they are the more excess reserves they will have when they reach Iceland and the easier it will be for them to reach peak breeding condition.
What these geese need from us then is the conditions which allow them to fatten up and build muscle when they need to. This means multiple suitable feeding areas close to their roost site, this way they are not expending energy flying long distances to seek food in winter and can rotate around feeding areas. So we need to know what they eat, where they eat and at what time of year, this is where the satellite tag data comes in so handy. We can see the areas they prefer, these are usually areas with a bit of standing water, topographical features like shallow ditches and hollows and usually fairly remote. What we can then do is look for other areas close by which may have some of these features but not all and work to make them more suitable for the geese. The satellite data also tells us that the geese like to roost on open water on the reserve, in the areas they prefer we can make sure that there is always open water available to them.
So from thinking ‘what can we do’ we can go through a process whereby we learn from what others have discovered, utilise technology and carry out management which will hopefully improve the birds chances of leaving the valley in good condition. It won’t always work and some of the time the geese may choose to feed elsewhere, but we still need to make sure we are providing good conditions where we can, should they chose to feed in the areas we manage.
The last and most important thing we can do is being part of the Greenland White fronted goose partnership, a group made up of several organisations including BACS, WWT and NRW. It is this group which has been the driving force behind all the work which has been carried out to date and who continue to work to preserve this unique species on the Dyfi. We can do our best to create better feeding areas on the reserve but it is the work of the partnership informing land owners over the whole valley that will give these geese a wide range of options in terms of feeding areas and therefore a better chance of breeding successfully when they return to Greenland. Only by working together to gather knowledge, share ideas and work on a landscape scale will we be able to improve the prospects of the Greenland White fronted Goose on the Dyfi.
Anyone who has had the privilege to see these birds will know that Greenland White fronted Geese are a fascinating, hugely charismatic and beautiful bird. They have survived Arctic Foxes and traversed harsh tundra to get to us, they are a part of what makes our valley unique and we will continue to do everything we can to keep them coming back for years to come.