New report highlights the value of the UK's wetlands

01 Apr 2015 | No. 2015-14

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 Protection 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.  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, e.g. Smew (see note 3). The changing climate may therefore be affecting Mallard and Shelduck too – understanding this is vital for an appropriate conservation response.      

Many familiar coastal waders, such as 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 Avocet.

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.

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.
Simon Wotton, RSPB, said: “The network of Special Protection 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 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.”

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.”

Top sites across the UK for Mallard and Shelduck

Mallard (all sites with more than 1,600 birds*) Shelduck (all sites with more than 2,000 birds*)
Loughs Neagh & Beg (Northern Ireland) Dee Estuary (Cheshire)
Lower Derwent Ings (Yorkshire) Mersey Estuary (Merseyside)
Severn Estuary (Wales/England) Morecambe Bay (Lancashire/Cumbria)
Ouse Washes (Norfolk/Cambridgeshire) The Wash (Norfolk/Lincolnshire)
The Wash (Norfolk/Lincolnshire) Humber Estuary (Yorkshire/Lincolnshire)
Martin Mere (Lancashire) Severn Estuary (Wales/England)
Clifford Hill Gravel Pits (Notts) Forth Estuary (Lothian, Scotland)
Morecambe Bay (Lancashire/Cumbria) Strangford Lough (Northern Ireland)
Strangford Lough (Northern Ireland) Ribble Estuary (Lancashire)
Loch Leven (Kinross, Scotland) Blackwater Estuary (Essex)
*based on average of annual peaks at each site, 2009/10 to 2013/14

Notes for Editors

1.  The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) - a partnership between BTO, JNCC and RSPB, in association with WWT - monitors birds at wetlands across the UK, using data collected since the 1960s. Over 2,000 sites, from small ponds to large estuaries, are visited by nearly 3,000 WeBS volunteers. For more information about WeBS see

2.  Detailed data for sites and species are available through an interactive web portal launched by WeBS:

3.  Pavon-Jordan, D., Fox, A.D., Clausen, P., Dagys, M., Deceuninck, B., Devos, K., Hearn, R.D., Holt, C.A., Hornman, M., Keller, V., Langendoen, T., Lawicki, L., Lorentsen, S.H., Luigujoe, L., Meissner, W., Musil, P., Nilsson, L., Paquet, J-Y., Stipniece, A., Stroud, D.A., Wahl, J., Zenatello, M. & Lehikoinen, A. 2015. Climate-driven changes in winter abundance of a migratory waterbird in relation to EU protected areas Diversity & Distributions early view. Link to Article (DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12300)

4. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Bangor (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. The BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations.

Contact Details

Dr Chas Holt
(BTO WeBS Coordinator)

Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Email: webs [at]

Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Media Manager)

Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07585 440910 (anytime)
Email: press [at]

Grahame Madge
(RSPB Senior Media Officer)

Office: 01767 693221
Email: Grahame.Madge [at]

Images are available for use alongside this News Release.
Please contact images [at] quoting reference 2015-14

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Please contact us to book an interview
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