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Saving the Greenland White-Fronted Goose

Posted on 25 Oct 2016 by Glengoyne Distillery

It’s the second week of September and, as the first winter snows settle in Arctic west Greenland, small family parties of an amazing animal are setting off from their breeding grounds on an epic 3,000km migration over vast ice sheets, stormy oceans and volcanic landscapes that will culminate in them arriving on our shores 6 weeks later.

Greenland white-fronted geese return home each autumn to the crofts, bogs and peatlands of the Celtic fringe of the British Isles, where the entire world population spends the winter. In keeping with their surroundings they are mysterious, enigmatic birds and beautiful in an under-stated manner – befitting of a naturally shy and elusive creature. They are deeply traditional, eking out a somewhat frugal existence from the local peat bogs, and a handful of old, flower-rich, hay meadows and barley stubbles. They are long-lived and very family orientated; growing up in tight-knit groups of close relatives – a rare phenomenon in nature and especially so in birds. They couldn’t be much further removed from the noisy, aggressive, birds you might see eating bread in your local park or wandering around a golf course!

However, Greenland white-fronts are in trouble. They are globally endangered, being in the midst of a rapid population decline of 50% in just 17 years. Crucially, we don’t yet know how and why this is happening. That’s why at The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (in conjunction with our partners at the University of Exeter and The Greenland White-fronted Goose Study) we’re actively researching to better understand this bird and their decline and find ways to help save them as part of the “Saving Greenland white-fronted goose” project. We work at a selection of key wintering sites but also in Iceland where the birds stop-over to refuel on their migration to and from Greenland in spring and autumn. We catch and mark birds with uniquely coded neck collars so we can start to recognise and get to know individual birds – some even get fitted with special GPS tags that give us an amazing window into their daily lives. This means we can examine the journeys they make, the habitats they use and identify some of the threats they face throughout their yearly cycle.

We’re incredibly grateful to Glengoyne for their support of this project. Working together is a natural fit in many ways (Watch this video). I’ll be writing a regular blogpost where we’ll delve a little deeper into the lives of these extraordinary birds, how we investigate the threats they face and give updates on our progress!

Four years ago I’d barely heard of Greenland white-fronted geese. Now I’m a self-confessed addict. I’m sure most of you won’t have come across them before either! I hope through this blog I’ll be able to share my passion for these truly remarkable inhabitants of the incredible and wild lands surrounding the North Atlantic.

 Ed Burrell is a research officer and PhD student at The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and the University of Exeter, and part of the team working on the “Saving the Greenland white-fronted goose” project.