European White-fronted Goose
Anser albifrons albifrons
The European White-fronted Geese that winter in Britain are from the Baltic/North Sea population which breeds in European Arctic Russia and northwest Siberia, and winters predominately in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Britain is on the very western edge of the population’s wintering range hence only small numbers occur in the country; though numbers can vary considerably particularly in relation to severity of winter weather.
Global status (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species)
African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA)
European status (European Red List of Birds)
The Birds Directive (European Commission)
UK status (Birds of Conservation Concern)
UK quarry species (Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981)
* assessed at species level Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
Least Concern (Europe and EU27)*
Annex II (Part B)
huntable in England and Wales during the open season
Flyway population size (Wetlands International 2015)
GB estimate (Musgrove et al. 2011)
GB trend (SUKB 2014)
Breeding success (GSMP survey)
Long-term trend (1987/88 – 2012/13): 71% decrease
Ten-year trend (2002/03 – 2012/13): 38% decrease
Varies markedly between years (13-35%), but appears to have declined
Annual estimates of the percentage of young (%) and mean brood size (young per successful pair) of European White-fronted Goose, 2004/05-2015/16; recorded at key sites in Britain.
Season Number of sites surveyed Total aged Percentage of young (%) Number of broods Mean brood size 2015/16 2 270 16.3 10 2.2 2014/15 2 316 30.7 – – 2013/14 2 389 28.3 18 2.17 2012/13 2 360 18.8 15 2.20 2011/12 3 538 35.1 – – 2010/11 2 841 25.9 44 2.34 2009/10 2 684 26.2 – – 2008/09 2 748 13.2 – – 2007/08 8 1,634 24.3 104 1.90 2006/07 4 1,210 16.7 49 1.90 2005/06 6 1,779 34.3 93 3.01 2004/05 10 1,377 27.4 60 2.42
Musgrove, A.J., G.E. Austin, R.D. Hearn, C.A. Holt, D.A. Stroud & S.R. Wotton. 2011. Overwinter population estimates of British waterbirds. British Birds 104: 364-397.
The Baltic/North Sea population of European White-fronted Goose breeds in European Arctic Russia and northwest Siberia. These birds generally leave their breeding grounds in September and early October (Stroud et al. 2002). Those wintering in Britain pass through Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, with a few also migrating through southern Sweden.
Flyway of the European White-fronted Goose
In Britain, the winter distribution is highly localised. Most regular wintering sites are in the south of England, with the key flocks occurring at the WWT Slimbridge, the Swale Estuary and sites in East Anglia. No sites in Britain support internationally important numbers of European White-fronted Geese any longer, but, since the early 2000s, nationally important numbers have occurred at around 20 sites. At sites in the western half of Britain, including WWT Slimbridge, numbers have declined in recent years and most sites have been abandoned. In East Anglia, however, numbers increased at several sites not occupied before 1980 (Hearn 2004), though since the mid 2000s numbers at most of these sites have been very variable with no clear trend (Calbrade et al. 2010).
European White-fronted Geese traditionally wintered on coastal grasslands and inland floodplains in Britain, grazing on natural vegetation. After decades of habitat degradation and loss, as a result of drainage and agricultural intensification, the species now feeds on cropped habitats. Permanent grasslands are the preferred agricultural habitat, although over recent decades a shift to crops such as winter wheat and maize stubble has been observed in Belgium (Kuijken et al. 2001).
Given that few birds winter in Britain nowadays, and those that do have a fragmented distribution and short period of residency, there is minimal conflict with agricultural interests. Hunting is the most significant cause of mortality for the European White-fronted Goose in the Western Palearctic (Mooij 2000) and the species remains a popular quarry for hunters throughout its wintering range.
Calbrade, N.A., C.A. Holt, G.E. Austin, H.J. Mellan, R.D. Hearn, D.A. Stroud, S.R. Wotton & A.J. Musgrove. 2010. Waterbirds in the UK 2008/09: The Wetland Bird Survey. BTO/RSPB/JNCC in association with WWT. Thetford.
Hearn, R.D. 2004. Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons albifrons (Baltic/North Sea population) in Britain, 1960/61 – 1999/2000. Waterbird Review Series, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust/Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Slimbridge.
Kuijken, E., W. Courtens, W. Teunissen, S. van Tieghem, C. Verscheure & P. Meire. 2001. Aantalsverloop en verspreidingsdynamiek van overwinterende ganzen in Vlaanderen. Rapport VLINA-project 2000/03. (RUG & UIA m.m.v. IN), AMINAL (Min. Vlaamse Gemeenschap).
Mooij, J.H. 2000. Population dynamics and migration of White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) in Eurasia. In: Ebbinge, B.S., Y.L. Mazourov & P.S. Tomkovich (eds.). Heritage of the Russian Arctic: Research, Conservation and International Co-operation. Ecopros, Moscow.
Stroud, D.A., A.D. Fox & A. Walsh. 2002. White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons. In: Wernham, C.V., M.P. Toms, J.H. Marchant, J.A. Clark, G.M. Siriwardena & S.R. Baillie (eds.). The Migration Atlas: Movements of the Birds of Britain and Ireland. Pp. 161-165. T. & A.D. Poyser, London.
Wetland Bird Survey
The abundance of the European White-fronted Goose population in the UK is monitored through the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). The results from the survey are published in an annual report (see the WeBS website for details).
GSMP age assessments
Age assessments of European White-fronted Geese are undertaken at a few localities in Britain, with counts carried out between October and January; a focus is made on January as assessments are being undertaken elsewhere in Europe during that month as part of the International Waterbird Census. Counters record the number of first winter birds present within a flock and individual brood sizes (i.e. how many young in each family group).
Results of the age assessments can be found on the ‘Latest results’ tab.
Find out more about age assessments
Results for 2015/16 [August 2016]
The breeding success of European White-fronted Geese in the UK was assessed at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire and at RSPB Church Farm, Suffolk, during 2014/15. In total, 270 birds were aged, of which 44 (16.3%) were young.
At WWT Slimbridge, 117 birds were aged with 22 juveniles (18.8%) present (Figure 1), and a sample of 153 birds aged at Church Farm, contained 22 juveniles (14.3%). Brood size counts were carried out by the reserve wardens at Slimbridge, with 22 juveniles counted among 10 broods, giving a mean brood size of 2.2 goslings per successful pair.
Figure 1. The percentage of young (blue columns) and mean brood size (red line) of European White-fronted Geese recorded at WWT Slimbridge (where data have been collected regularly), 1993/94-2015/16. No data were collected during 1994/95 or 2003/04.
The results from age assessments made at wintering sites in the UK indicate that the breeding success of European White-fronted Geese in 2015 was lower than the previous five-year average (24.8% ±1.63 SE), and 14.4% lower than the previous year.
At the time of writing, not all the data from elsewhere along the North Sea/Baltic flyway have been collated but preliminary results suggest 2015 was another poor breeding season for this population of White-fronted Goose. Together, results from the UK, the Netherlands and the western part of Germany indicate a breeding success of 11.4% young.
As noted in previous years, the age ratios in the UK were slightly higher than those recorded in the core wintering regions of the Netherlands and Germany, where a total of 196,330 geese were aged of which 11.3% were first-winter birds.
These initial results for the 2015 breeding season confirm the continued decline in the European Whitefront breeding success that has been recorded since the early 1990s (Figure 2). Recent studies in The Netherlands have shown that the lower reproductive output is probably the result of density-dependence on the breeding grounds. As a result, the flyway population has stabilized since 2000. The tendency for milder winters has initiated a long-term decline in numbers wintering in the UK and an increase in wintering numbers along the northern fringe of the wintering range in Denmark and Sweden.
Figure 2. Long term trend in breeding success of European White-fronted Geese, expressed as the percentage of juveniles recorded in the wintering areas (mainly data from The Netherlands and Germany). Note, the open circle for 2015 indicates preliminary results calculated at the time of writing. Data: Sovon Vogelonderzoek Nederland.
Thanks go to Martin McGill (WWT) and David Thurlow (RSPB) for their continued efforts in collecting age assessment data, and to Kees Koffijberg for providing additional information from the rest of the flyway.
Previous annual results will be archived here.
Hearn, R.D. 2004. Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons albifrons (Baltic/North Sea population) in Britain, 1960/61 – 1999/2000. Waterbird Review Series, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust/Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Slimbridge. Download
Other relevant material
Research in Germany and Russia by Helmut Kruckenberg and colleagues