New legislation, which comes into force today, gives greater protection to one of Wales’ rarest birds. RSPB Cymru Head of Species, Julian Hughes, and David Anning, Site Manager at RSPB Ynys-hir, explain why Greenland white-fronted geese need help.

As the first swallows and warblers start to arrive in Wales, the longer days also trigger a restlessness in our winter migrants to head home.

For Greenland white-fronted geese that means a long journey northwest, initially a non-stop flight from Wales to Iceland following the west coast of Scotland, then across the North Atlantic. By late May they will be on the move again flying all the way to western Greenland. A grand total of around 2,000 miles. Most Greenland whitefronts spend the winter in Ireland and the Hebrides of Scotland, but small numbers live in Wales. They used to be far more widespread here, perhaps around 1,100 birds a century ago, but they now occur regularly in only two places. This winter, there were up to 30 on the Dyfi estuary in mid Wales and 19 on Anglesey.

The latest estimate is that there are only 22,000 left in the world, so although Wales holds only a small proportion, every bird count. Numbers have crashed because they haven’t been producing enough chicks since the mid-1990s, partly a result of increased amounts of snow and lower spring temperatures on their Greenland breeding grounds. To have the best chance of breeding successfully, the adults need to leave Wales in tip-top condition. Management by farmers, including by RSPB Cymru at our RSPB Ynys-hir reserve on the Dyfi estuary and RSPB Cors Ddyga on Anglesey, can provide nutritious grass but the birds need plenty of time to graze, so avoiding disturbance is crucial.

Like most conservation successes, working together achieves change. A Wales Greenland white-fronted goose partnership has provided a focus for work to protect the birds, involving RSPB Cymru, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, British Association of Shooting and Conservation and local wildfowling clubs. Our staff and our grazing tenants on the Dyfi, working with NRW, are very careful not to disturb the geese, and we are grateful to the wildfowlers on the estuary for following a voluntary ban on shooting Greenland whitefronts since 1972. But across Wales, the geese could be shot during the hunting season - on Anglesey, for example, 29 were shot between 1998 and 2010. Wales and England were the only countries with Greenland white-fronts that permitted hunting. For a Red-listed bird in steep decline, this didn’t seem right – and international experts agreed. AEWA (an international water bird agreement) told the UK governments that a voluntary agreement was not sufficient to meet its legal obligations.

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