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During migration and winter, the UK plays host to over 5 million waterbirds (principally divers, grebes, swans, geese, ducks, rails, waders and gulls). Their breeding ranges cover vast areas of the Arctic, from Canada to central Russia, as well as much of northern Europe, and in many cases they undertake arduous migrations to reach their wintering grounds. They migrate in order to take advantage of the relatively mild winter climate and the numerous wetland habitats that are found in the UK and elsewhere in Northwest Europe. These migrations link otherwise disparate countries and for hundreds of years they have inspired people in many different ways.With this abundance of wintering waterbirds comes great responsibility to safeguard them and their habitats. In this regard, the UK has a particularly high level of responsibility because a number of waterbird populations winter entirely, or almost entirely, within its borders. In order to do this effectively, it is vital to keep track of how many individuals each population holds, where they are found, and the overall trend of the population (in other words whether it is increasing, decreasing, or remaining stable). Furthermore, there is a need to measure other demographic parameters, the most important of which are productivity (annual reproductive success) and survival (or mortality) rates, in order to understand why individual populations may be increasing or decreasing.
Thus, the basic aim is to regularly measure the abundance, productivity and survival for each recognised species, sub-species or population. Such integrated monitoring is achieved through a suite of surveys employing a range of counting techniques, and other monitoring tools of which capture and marking is the most important.
Such mechanisms are set out as part of a number of international agreements, treaties, directives and conventions, to which the UK is Party to many. Among the most important for waterbird conservation are the Convention on Migratory Species, and its Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. AEWA provides a comprehensive framework that outlines the importance of and need for waterbird population data, including the need to “initiate or support research into the biology and ecology of migratory waterbirds including the harmonization of research and monitoring methods and, where appropriate, the establishment of joint or cooperative research and monitoring programmes”. The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. It was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and came into force in 1975, and it is the only global environmental treaty that deals with a particular ecosystem. Among its functions is the identification and protection of wetlands of international importance, and the criteria by which this is accomplished include specific needs for waterbird abundance data at both the population and site levels.
As many of these waterbirds breed in remote parts of the Arctic, monitoring these population parameters during the breeding season is often logistically difficult. Consequently, the most effective period for collecting much of these data is the non-breeding season, when they are more concentrated, making them easier to count, and present in more densely populated parts of Europe, where there are more ornithologists available to carry out this monitoring work.
Since its inception, WWT has remained at the forefront of waterbird monitoring, both in the UK and internationally. In this time, it has developed a comprehensive, flyway-based Integrated Waterbird Monitoring Programme in collaboration with partner organisations and individuals from across these flyways. The results help to deliver conservation action at both national and international scales.
Without the steadfast commitment of the volunteer fieldworkers, our understanding of waterbirds and their conservation status would be far poorer, and our ability to effectively conserve them would also be much reduced. The continued support of volunteer fieldworkers, both past and present, is therefore very much appreciated and valued at WWT, and we look forward to continuing and developing this fruitful relationship.
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
Slimbridge, Gloucestershire GL2 7BT
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