Friday, 24 February 2012

From Svalbard to the Solway Firth

Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis)

Last month I wrote about the Whooper Swans that migrate from the Iceland to the UK every winter with a good number of these beautiful birds coming to take advantage of the rich feeding on the merse and farmland around the Solway Firth. About the same time that the swans visit there is usually a significant number of geese. Perhaps the most famous to be seen around the Caerlaverock Nature Reserve on the Solway Firth are the huge numbers of Barnacle geese that overwinter here.

Barnacle Goose in its natural wetland habitat
Typically, there can be as many as 30,000 of these birds in the area during the winter months and that's an astonishing number considering the fact that the Barnacle population was down to some 300 or so birds in the period immediately after WWII. So what has brought about this incredible increase in numbers? The answer is quite simply good conservation and land management skills. Prior to WWII the shooting of ducks and geese, or wildfowling as it is know, was becoming an increasingly popular sport. The need to hunt and eat is recognised and accepted but around the Caerlaverock area there were no clear zones designated for shooting. Consequently birds were being hunted indiscriminately across a wide area of the landscape. The continual movement of humans accompanied by the sound of loud guns was also detrimental to the wildfowl that did manage to escape being shot. Their natural habitat had become an uncomfortable one and it became an environment to be feared. Wildfowl numbers dwindled.

That wasn't the only problem though. Fishing was on the increase from both shore and boat and that brought further disturbance. The natural landscape was also being taken over by local farms. Advances in technology, new drains, new crop methods and fertilisers etc meant that ground, largely unusable previously, could now be claimed for additional farmland. Given that the land immediately around the Solway Firth is often waterlogged and marshy by nature the chance to grab extra fields was a great opportunity for many farmers. The available natural land diminished in quantity and it was the natural land that provided the rich feeding and brought the wildlife. As it diminished in size so did the flocks of winter birds.

Finally, both world wars had also taken their toll on this beautiful corner of Scotland. Along the northern edge of the Solway Firth were significant numbers of munitions factories and Ministry of Defence buildings. Weapons were manufactured and testing was undertaken across a wide area. Collectively, all these things had a devastating effect upon the wildlife. In the immediate aftermath of WWII Barnacle geese numbers had slumped to about 300 birds.

Barnacle Goose on sentry duty

Thanks to the famous, and influential, conservationist Peter Scott and the Duke of Norfolk, who owned the land, Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve was established in 1957. For the first time, a policy of managing disparate land interests - agriculture, wildfowling, fishing and conservation - was agreed. Further assistance came when the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) took over Eastpark Farm on the edge of the Reserve in 1970, and began expanding and consolidating the area's natural habitats. Today, we reap the benefit of such vision with some 30,000 Barnacle geese wintering in the area alongside Pink-footed and Greylag geese.

All the Barnacle geese that visit the Caerlaverock area come from Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Circle. Depending upon the severity of the winter the birds, many with young that were born in Svalbard just a few months previously, will fly south around November. Most will work their way down the Norwegian coast before making the big flight across the North Sea. Timing is critical. Judge the weather correctly and the odds of a successful migration are in the birds' favour. Get it wrong and the consequences can be disastrous with birds being lost at sea. Tired and hungry, birds will often pause on the east coast of the UK before continuing on to the Solway Firth. Once there they will spend some 5 months building up fat reserves ready for the long flight back to the Arctic.

Barnacle geese feed on green shoots of leaves, grass and crops. They are sociable birds, gathering in large numbers on land and in the air. They are easily recognised with a very distinctive black head, neck and chest with a white face. Their wings and backs display a beautiful striped monochrome pattern.

Barnacle Geese in Flight
(the bird on the extreme right has a radio transmitter fitted)

Life has become increasingly difficult for the Barnacle geese in Svalbard. Changes to the Arctic ice floes mean that Polar bears cannot easily access their usual food source of seals and, in desperation, they are traveling further afield. Barnacle geese lay their eggs in nests on the ground or on rocky cliffs. The eggs and the young chicks make a small but essential contribution to the Polar bear's diet when times are tough. The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust are undertaking a study programme to get a better understanding of these birds amidst concerns that Polar bears are causing serious damage to future generations of Barnacles.

I have spent the last few months photographing these birds and as you read this I will be making the most of their last few weeks in Scotland to get some more shots before they disappear back to the land of the midnight sun.

Barnacle Geese in flight

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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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