History of WeBS
Wildfowl counts and the National Wildfowl Counts (NWC): the early years
In the 1940s, growing concern regarding a possible decline in wildfowl populations, and the inability to assess with confidence the likely impact of an increasing number of developments upon wetlands, made conservationists acutely aware of the need to collect and publish data on the distribution and numbers of waterbirds. Thus in 1947, a national scheme to count wildfowl in Britain was pioneered by the Wildfowl Inquiry Committee of the British Section, International Council for Bird Preservation. The initial objectives of the scheme were to determine the status of wildfowl in Great Britain and to assess whether any long-term trends in numbers were occurring. The survey was initially organised by Phylis Barclay-Smith and Christopher Dalgety of the International Wildfowl Research Institute (IWRI), based at the British Museum (Natural History) and trialled at a limited number of waterbodies in the London and Birmingham areas, where counts had already been conducted in the late-1930s as part of local schemes. Inspired by early success, the survey was extended to provide truly national coverage in the winter of 1951-52 and the number of sites censused rose to over 500. In 1954, jurisdiction of the National Wildfowl Counts (NWC) passed to the then Wildfowl Trust, now the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, along with the then Central Organiser, George Atkinson-Willes.
The UK Government was involved from the start, and has continued to support and fund the scheme through its conservation agencies in their various guises, from the Nature Conservancy to the present day Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) became a co-funder of the NWC in the late-1970s and, with JNCC, remains one the principal funders of the scheme today.
Birds of Estuaries Enquiry (BoEE)
In the 1960s, the UK’s increasing energy demands and requirements for water resulted in a large number of proposals for barrages on large estuaries. A review by the RSPB at the time revealed large gaps in our knowledge of waders in particular and so, following a proposal by W. R. P. Bourne to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to survey estuarine birds, a joint BTO/RSPB project was begun. A first year of counts was organised in 1969-70 by the BTO and International Wildfowl Research Bureau (IWRB), with an advisory committee comprising staff from, among others, BTO, RSPB, WWT, the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC), IWRB and Wildfowlers Association of Great Britain and Ireland (WAGBI). Following this success, NCC agreed to fund the scheme for five further years and Tony Prater was appointed National Organiser and ran the scheme almost single-handedly during this period. In 1977 John Marchant took over BoEE while running the Common Bird Census and the BoEE extended coverage to the few remaining UK estuaries not already covered by the National Wildfowl Counts (NWC). In 1982 Mike Moser took over and expanded BoEE, including to areas of non-estuarine coast, with the organisation of the "The Winter Shorebird Count” in 1984-85. In 1986, Robert Prys-Jones and Ray Waters took over running the BoEE.
The start of integration of wildfowl and wader counts
With improved coordination on larger sites, the BoEE became the principal source of waterbird count data for coastal sites. Wildfowl data were passed to WWT for inclusion in the NWC database. Consequently in 1972, WWT became a co-sponsor of the scheme. In 1989, the complementary nature of the NWC and BoEE was recognised in the production of a joint BTO/WWT recording form for use at coastal sites. By then several species had been added to the original list of strictly wildfowl species, including Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Cormorant and Coot. The NWC changed in 1991 to the National Waterfowl Counts to reflect these additions.
WeBS: full integration of wildfowl and wader counts
In 1993, full integration was achieved with the launch of the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), a joint BTO, WWT, RSPB and JNCC scheme, primarily managed jointly by the BTO and WWT. A merger of the NWC and BoEE, WeBS records all waterbird species (divers, grebes, cormorants, herons, swans, geese, ducks, rails, waders, gulls, terns and kingfisher) at as many wetland sites of as many habitats during as many months (although still concentrating on the winter period) as counters are prepared to visit. The winter of 1992/1993 saw the beginning of the WeBS Low Tide Count scheme, started by Julianne Evans, but replaced by Andy Musgrove in 1995 and thereafter the traditional count scheme was referred to as the Core Counts scheme. WeBS continued to expand with the recruitment of Graham Austin who took over data handling and manipulation aspects of WeBS.
In 1998, running of the scheme was handed over to WWT and run by Peter Cranswick, Mark Pollitt and Colette Hall, although the BTO retained the organisation of the Low Tide Scheme. In 2004, the scheme was handed back to the BTO and coordinated by Andy Musgrove. Alex Banks replaced Andy Musgrove as organiser of the Low Tide Count scheme and Mark Collier joined to assist Andy with running the Core Count scheme. In 2007 Alex Banks left the WeBS team and was replaced as organiser of the low tide scheme by Neil Calbrade. At the end of 2008, WeBS was restructured as part of a BTO wide strategy with Andy Musgrove overseeing WeBS, BBS, BirdTrack and Bird Atlas 2007-2011. Chas Holt took over responsibility from Mark Collier for the Core Counts, Neil Calbrade continued as Low Tide Organiser and Heidi Mellan became Counter Network Organiser. In November 2015, Teresa Frost replaced Chas Holt in the overall running of WeBS and in July 2019 Gillian Birtles replaced Heidi Mellan as Counter Network Organiser.
WeBS data continued to be used to inform policy infrastructure development proposals on wetland and coastal sites. WeBS data played a prominent role in preventing the development of a deep-water container terminal at Dibden Bay, on Southampton Water and contributed to the decision to create Newport Wetlands as mitigation for the loss of mudflats on Cardiff Bay. However, the role of WeBS continues to expand. For example, the survey has become extremely well placed to contribute to the scientific approach needed when considering the variable probability of interactions between different species and domestic poultry throughout different areas if the UK, in the context of Avian Influenza.
The scheme continues from strength to strength. Over 5,000 count sectors at around 3,000 count sites are counted by volunteers during the crucial ‘winter’ period of September to March. At least 4,000 sectors are counted in any one of these months and almost 3,500 are continually throughout this period. The number of counts stored in the WeBS database is now over 13 million and continues to increase every year.
More information of the history of WeBS can be found in Cranswick et al. 1997.
Tackling the challenge of avian influenza
Director of Science James Pearce-Higgins discusses Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza and BTO's role in the response to the current outbreak.
One bird, twelve journeys, 60 000 miles and invaluable scientific data: PJ the Cuckoo has left an incredible legacy.