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Conserving Britain's wetland birds

Malcolm Ogilvie

Mute and Whooper Swan The latest annual report of the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), covering the winter of 1996-97, contains a series of graphs showing how the numbers of individual species have varied over the last 30-35 years. Looking at these, one is struck by how many of the lines have an upward trend and how few are heading downwards. Of 36 of the commoner species or populations for which there is data going back to at least 1969-70, no less than 20 have increased compared with just two which have declined, while the remaining 14 have shown little or no change, though some may have fluctuated in the intervening period. I should add that I have not carried out a statistical analysis, but merely "eye-balled" the graphs.

Good News For Wildfowl
All three species of swans (Mute and Whooper Swans illustrated top right) have increased, as have almost all the geese, though numbers of the European Whitefront have declined. The dabbling ducks have done well, too, with the slightly surprising exception of the Mallard. However, the autumn and winter counts of Mallard in Britain are greatly influenced by the fact that large numbers are reared and released by wildfowl and shooting clubs so that increases or decreases may not reflect what is happening in the wild population. During the 1950s and 1960s, Tufted Duck both Tufted Duck (illustrated right) and Pochard were increasing rapidly, coinciding with the construction of many reservoirs and gravel pits, but in the last 30 years there has been little change in either.

And Waders
It is remarkable that no wader species included in the graphs has declined in numbers in the last 30 years while some, such as the Avocet, Grey Plover and Black-tailed Godwit, have noticeably increased and both Knot and Golden Plover (illustrated below) have recovered from earlier declines. (Editor's comment: The situation for some of our breeding birds is in contrast to these winter counts, and Dr Ogilvie will be addressing the decline of lowland breeding waders in a future article).

Golden Plover A Success Story
There is no doubt that these figures represent a considerable success story for conservation, with the great majority of species in a very healthy state. This has been achieved by, for example, increased protection from shooting and disturbance and the creation of many wetland reserves. Through this long series of counts, the two component parts of WeBS, National Wildfowl Count scheme and the Birds of Estuaries Enquiry, started in 1947 and in 1969 respectively, it has been possible to identify the most important estuaries, reservoirs and lakes, and so enable the conservation organisations to set about putting in place the necessary measures to protect them, firstly with British, and more recently with European, designations. The Wetland Bird Survey is a prime example of what we do so well in Britain, harness large numbers of enthusiastic amateur birdwatchers to provide vital information that can be used to the benefit of the birds.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.