Turning tides for waterbirds in the UK

01 Aug 2010 | No. 2010-08-37

Latest data from the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) highlight the contrasting fortunes of the UK’s wintering waterbirds.

Little Egret are now present in
higher numbers than ever before.

In recent years, the UK’s estuaries and other wetlands have seen several notable changes in the birds using them. Little Egret and Avocet are now present in higher numbers than ever before, but familiar species such as Ringed Plover and Dunlin are at all-time lows, andother coastal waders such as Redshank, Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit have also experienced recent declines.

The latest WeBS report, covering the winter of 2008/09, documents the expansion of four native waterbird populations in the UK, with Pink-footed Goose, Svalbard Barnacle Goose, Little Egret and Avocet all noted at record levels. Avocet for example has increased by over 1000% in the last twenty years.

In contrast, populations of six species reached an all-time low point; Mallard, Pochard, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Ringed Plover and Dunlin – all of which have declined by at least 20% in the last twenty years.

Chas Holt, WeBS Organiser at BTO, commented: “Once again our precious volunteers are recording dramatic changes in Britain’s birds. This is the Big (bird) Society in action! Just twenty years ago, Little Egrets and Avocets were scarce in the UK but nowadays they are a familiar sight at coastal wetlands on the south and east coasts. At the same time numbers of some of our internationally important wader populations are in decline – probably partly because they are shifting range in response to climate change. To see how all species responded to last winter – the coldest across the UK for over thirty years – will prove especially fascinating.”

Simon Wotton of the RSPB, said: “The Wetland Bird Survey proves that the UK is rightly renowned for the millions of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds which visit each autumn and winter. The survey also highlights the fluctuating nature of these populations with some recording their greatest or lowest figures since the survey began. With the UK boasting many sites of international importance for wetland birds, we have a global responsibility for these species and sites. In coming decades, climate change, development and sea-level rise will all place great stress on one of the UK's greatest wildlife treasures.”

David Stroud of JNCC said: “The monitoring data from WeBS are essential to enable the UK to fulfil its obligations under international conservation treaties such as the Agreement on the conservation of African Eurasian migratory waterbirds. This Agreement provides a legal framework for countries to work together to conserve waterbirds that move between many countries in the course of their annual migratory cycle.”

Richard Hearn, Head of Species Monitoring at WWT said: “Data collected by the WeBS counter network are invaluable to waterbird conservation and allow this latest assessment of trends to be made. They continue to highlight deterioration in the status of many migratory waterbirds in the UK, yet for many of these the causes of this are not fully understood. Flyway-wide research that helps to explain these trends is urgently needed to ensure that appropriate conservation action can be taken in good time. Red-breasted Mergansers, for example, are declining at an alarming rate in the UK, but increasing in Sweden. We need to catch and ring more of this species to better understand whether these trends are linked, or whether other factors closer to home may be causing the decline.”

Notes for Editors

  1. WeBS monitors the numbers and distribution of non-breeding swans, geese, ducks, waders and other waterbirds at over 2,000 sites across the UK, and provides theprincipal data for the conservation of their populations and wetland habitats. It is a partnership between British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in association with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).
  2. Four additional waterbird populations which reached all-time high points in 2008/09 are either non-native (Egyptian Goose and Mandarin Duck) or re-established (re-established Greylag Goose and naturalised Barnacle Goose).
  3. The report is available here 

Contact information

Paul Stancliffe (BTO Press Officer)
Office: 01842 750050 (9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07845 900559 (anytime)
Email: press [at] bto.org

Grahame Madge (RSPB Press Officer)
Office: 01767 681577 (Office Hours)
Mobile: 07702 196902 (Anytime)

Chas Holt (WeBS Organiser)
Office: 01842 750050 (Office Hours)
Email: webs [at] bto.org

David Stroud (JNCC)
Mobile: 07974 257549

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