Greenland White-fronted Goose
Anser albifrons flavirostris
Greenland White-fronted Geese breed in the coastal fringe of west Greenland and winter exclusively in Ireland and Britain. The largest numbers are found in County Wexford, Republic of Ireland, and on Islay, Scotland. The rest of the population is mainly concentrated at regular wintering haunts across western Scotland and northwestern and western Ireland.
Greenland White-fronted Geese are declining and the highest conservation concern among the UK’s geese. An AEWA Action Plan has been prepared to focus and prioritise conservation actions.
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 Anser albifrons
Least Concern (Europe and EU27)*
huntable in England and Wales during the open season
† Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons is listed as ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN. The Red List assessment of sub-species is not routinely undertaken, however, an assessment of Greenland White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons flavirostris has been undertaken (Boertmann 2007); the sub-species was evaluated as ‘Endangered’
Flyway population size (Wetlands International 2015)
GB estimate (Musgrove et al. 2011)
Irish estimate (Crowe & Holt. 2013)
GB trend (SUKB 2014)
Long-term trend (1987/88 – 2012/13): 11% decrease
Ten-year trend (2002/03 – 2012/13): 41% decrease
Variable (generally 10-20%), low since 1999
Annual estimates of the population size of Greenland White-fronted Goose in Britain and Ireland, spring 2003-2015 (Fox et al. 2016).
Spring Estimate of population size 2016 18,879 2015 18,854 2014 20,797 2013 22,156 2012 22,403 2011 25,765 2010 22,844 2009 23,162 2008 23,208 2007 25,168 2006 24,895 2005 23,842 2004 28,696 2003 29,473
Annual estimates of the proportion of young (%) and mean brood size (young per successful pair) of Greenland White-fronted Goose in Britain and Ireland, 2002/03 – 2014/15 (Fox et al. 2016).
Britain Ireland Season Proportion of young (%) Mean brood size Proportion of young (%) Mean brood size 2015/16 2.96 5.96 6.0 2.61 2014/15 12.9 2.73 6.1 2.59 2013/14 14.2 2.88 6.9 2.88 2012/13 9.6 2.94 5.0 2.63 2011/12 8.8 2.93 7.6 2.62 2010/11 21.2 3.37 14.4 3.27 2009/10 12.9 3.10 9.2 3.1 2008/09 10.7 2.79 10.2 3.27 2007/08 9.7 3.00 9.5 – 2006/07 10.2 3.36 – – 2005/06 8.6 3.08 – – 2004/05 7.84 3.30 – – 2003/04 7.55 3.14 – – 2002/03 9.9 3.20 – –
Crowe, O. & C. Holt. 2013. Estimates of waterbird numbers wintering in Ireland, 2006/07-2010/11. Irish Birds 9: 545-552
Fox, A.D., I. Francis, D. Norriss & A. Walsh. 2016. Report of the 2015/2016 International Census of Greenland White-fronted Geese. Greenland White-fronted Goose Study / National Parks & Wildlife Service report, Kalo.
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.
Greenland White-fronted Geese breed in the coastal fringe of west Greenland. They migrate south through south and west Iceland during September and October to winter exclusively in Ireland and Britain (Fox et al. 1994).
Flyway of the Greenland White-fronted Goose
Throughout its wintering range it is associated with a landscape characterised by peatlands and low intensity agricultural land. Wintering areas are often remote and flocks can be small and difficult to locate. The present winter range has not changed markedly over recent decades. It is distinctive in being concentrated in the northern and western fringes of Britain and Ireland (Fox et al. 1994). Two thirds of the Scottish population occur on Islay, the remaining located at 33 regularly used sites, mostly in western Scotland, with Tiree, Coll, Rhunahaorine and Machrihanish supporting the largest numbers. Throughout the period of expansion (principally the late 1980s and 1990s), numbers in Ireland underwent slower growth than the rest of the range. The underlying trend has been a gradual contraction of range, and reduction in flock size, with at least five extinctions known to have occurred since the early 1980s. Two thirds of the Irish population occur at Wexford Slobs, the remainder winter in smaller flocks over approximately 30 sites throughout the west and north of Ireland. Thirteen of these sites have shown decreases in numbers and trends are strongly related to range size, particularly the number and size of feeding sites (Fox et al. 1999).
Traditional feeding occurred on bogland habitats but in recent years geese have increasingly used intensively managed grassland, especially in the most important wintering areas of Wexford and Islay. Some waste root crops and spilt grain from stubble fields are also taken in autumn. Several flocks have retained bogland roost sites where traditional feeding may still occur at night. Goose management schemes were initiated in 1992/93 by SNH to alleviate the conflict that had arisen due to damage to agricultural crops through goose grazing (Fox et al. 1999).
Since the peak in the late 1990s, the Greenland Whitefront population has gradually declined. Reproductive success has been consistently poor meaning the percentage of young produced each year is too low to replace annual losses. Though reasons for this are speculative, it is thought competition with Canada Geese at breeding sites in Greenland and increasingly late arrivals of spring weather are contributing factors. In response to the change in status, the Icelandic Government announced a ban on hunting of White-fronted Geese in Iceland in autumn 2006. Up until that point, shooting mortality accounted for some 3,500 geese per year.
Fox, A.D., D.W. Norriss, D.A. Stroud & H.J. Wilson. 1994. Greenland White-fronted Geese in Ireland and Britain 1982/83 – 1993/94. Greenland White-fronted Goose Study Research Report No. 8.
Fox, A.D., D.W. Norriss, H.J. Wilson, O.J. Merne, D.A. Stroud, A. Sigfusson & C. Glahder. 1999. Greenland White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons flavirostris. In: Madsen, J., G. Cracknell & A.D. Fox (eds.). 1999. Goose populations of the Western Palearctic. A review of status and distribution. Wetlands International Publication no. 48, Wetlands International, Wageningen, The Netherlands/National Environmental Research Institute, Ronde, Denmark.
Greenland White-fronted Goose Census
Counts of Greenland White-fronted Geese are carried out through the Greenland White-fronted Goose Census, which is organised by the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study. The counts are conducted across the wintering range and involve two counts; one in autumn and one in spring. The census also involves making age assessments of the flocks, during which counters record the number of young present as well as brood sizes (i.e. the size of family groups). These assessments provide information about the breeding success of the population.
Find out more about the Greenland White-fronted Goose Census.
Results for 2015/16 [added December 2016]
Coordinated spring and autumn counts of the Greenland White-fronted Goose were carried out in Britain and Ireland for the 34th consecutive winter. The censuses were organised by the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study in Britain and by the National Parks & Wildlife Service in Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The internationally coordinated count in spring 2016 found a combined global total of 18,879 Greenland White-fronted Geese, up just 0.13% (25 birds) on the last world population estimate of 18,854 in spring 2015.
Figure 1. Annual population estimates of Greenland White-fronted Geese, spring 1983-2016 (filled circles) (Fox et al. 2016). The five-year running mean (e.g. mean for 2008 is from population estimates for 2006-10) is shown as a red line. The open circles indicate estimated values for years when data were missing from Ireland. The open triangle indicates the estimated value for 2001 when data were missing due to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease that year.
Almost all wintering resorts in Britain were covered at least once during the 2015/16 season. For any sites not covered during the census period, counts were substituted with those undertaken close to the defined dates; amounting 5.3% of the British spring total and 3.1% of the autumn total. Overall, totals of 9,390 and 10,286 Greenland White-fronted Geese were recorded in autumn and spring, respectively (Table 1). This represents an increase of 12.1% compared with autumn 2014 and an increase of 19.8% compared with spring 2015 (Figure 2).
During the autumn census, just under half of the birds were recorded on Islay, which held 4,644, 2.7% lower than in autumn 2014.The majority of the rest of the birds (4,711) were seen elsewhere in Scotland, with 14 also reported in England and 21 in Wales. During the spring census, 10,244 geese were recorded in Scotland, of which 5,183 were observed on Islay (29.7% higher than in spring 2015), six were seen in England and 36 in Wales.
Count coverage in Ireland was reasonably good, with most of the known flocks counted at least once over the course of the winter. Rather more missing spring counts needed to be substituted than usual, contributing total for ten Irish regular wintering sites, amounting to 21.0% of the Irish spring total and 7.2% of the autumn total. A total of 7,692 Greenland White fronts was recorded in autumn 2015 (25.6% lower than in autumn 2014), with 5,908 seen at Wexford (compared with 8,092 in 2014) (Table 1). During the spring 2015 census, a total of 8,593 was recorded (16.3% lower than in 2014), with Wexford again holding the majority of birds (6,421 compared with 7,984 in spring 2015).
Table 1. Autumn and spring counts in Britain and Ireland, 2015/16 (includes substituted counts; see text) (From Fox et al. 2016).
Region Autumn Census Spring Census Orkney 63 62 Caithness 281 288 NE Scotland 1 – Western Isles 153 156 Inner Hebrides 26 26 Lochaber/North Argyll 1,094 1,159 South Argyll 2,756 3,027 Islay 4,644 5,183 Dumfries & Galloway 338 343 Wales 21 36 England 14 6 Britain total 9,390 10,286 Donegal 876 1,219 North Central 103 99 Mayo 42 65 Mayo/Galway Uplands 21 21 Galway Lowlands 143 152 Clare/Limerick 57 57 Shannon headwaters 101 101 Middle & Lower Shannon 231 248 Midlands 201 201 Southwest 9 9 Wexford 5,908 6,421 Ireland total 7,692 8,593 Population estimate – 18,879
Figure 2. Coordinated count totals of Greenland White-fronted Geese in Britain, 1982/83-2015/16, showing autumn (open triangles) and spring (filled squares) census results for each season. Note the missing value for spring 2001 (unfilled square) due to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease that year (from Fox et al. 2016).
A total of 5,556 Greenland Whitefronts were aged at 25 sites across Britain during 2015/16 (Table 2), of which 15.5% were young birds; higher than in 2014/15 (12.9%) and also the previous ten-year mean (11.9% for 2005/06–2014/15) (Figure 3). Mean brood size was 2.96 young per successful pair (253 families assessed), slightly higher than the previous winter (2.73) though below the previous ten-year mean (3.02 for 2005/06–2014/15).
Across the British sites, the percentage of young ranged from 0% to 30.4%, with 20 sites exceeding 10% young in flocks. On Islay, the percentage young was 16.1% (compared with 14.7% in 2014/15), whilst elsewhere in Britain 14.9% of the birds aged were young (compared with 11.0% in 2014/15).
In Ireland, 4,010 birds were aged at seven sites, resulting in an overall percentage young of 6.0%; only fractionally lower than the previous winter (6.1%) but below the previous five-year mean (8.0 % for 2010/11–2014/15). Overall, the mean brood size was 2.61 young per successful pair (77 broods assessed); fractionally higher than recorded in 2014/15 (2.59) but slightly below the previous five-year mean (2.80 for 2010/11–2014/15) (Table 2; Figure 4).
The percentage young varied between sites ranging from 0% to 14.0%. The majority of the birds were aged at Wexford (3,599), with flocks there holding 5.8% young, whilst a higher percentage of young was seen amongst flocks elsewhere in Ireland (7.3%; n = 441).
Table 2. Percentage of young and mean brood size of Greenland White-fronted Geese in Britain and Ireland during winter 2015/16 (Fox et al. 2016).
Region Percentage (%) of young (n) Mean brood size (n) Islay 16.1 (2.442) 2.92 (134) Britain excluding Islay 14.9 (3,114) 3.01 (119) Britain overall 15.5 (5,556) 2.96 (253) Wexford 5.8 (3,599) 2.57 (68) Rest of Ireland 7.3 (411) 2.89 (9) Ireland overall 6.0 (4,010) 2.61(77)
Figure 3. The percentage of young (blue columns) and mean brood size (red circles) of Greenland White-fronted Geese in Britain, 1993/94 – 2015/16 (from Fox et al. 2016).
Figure 4. The percentage of young (blue columns) and mean brood size (red circles) of Greenland White-fronted Geese in Ireland, 2007/08 – 2015/16 (from Fox et al. 2016).
Since the mid-1990s, this small global population of Greenland White-fronted Geese has shown consistent declines to the present day. Despite what appeared to be some level of stability between 2008 and 2013, there have since been further declines, with the 2016 population estimate being 47.1% lower than the peak in 1999 (35,692).The main driver of the decline is still thought to be the population’s consistently poor breeding success, as results from survival analyses of marked birds have not suggested that mortality within the population has been higher in recent years compared with previous years.
Total numbers counted in Britain in 2015/16 showed a slight recovery in numbers, with improvements in the autumn and spring census totals compared with 2014/15. Conversely, total numbers in Ireland fell, with the 2015/16 counts being well below the previous five-year means: 10,550 for autumn 2010-2014 and 11,371 for spring 2011-2015.
Numbers at many sites are mirroring that of the whole population, with declines observed across the entire wintering range. Islay in particular has seen a gradual decrease in the size of its flock, which in spring 2015 was 61.8% lower than the peak count recorded there in 1999 (Figure 5). The spring 2016 Wexford count was unusually low, being the lowest count since 1985. This is remarkable insofar as it represents a continued decline in the Wexford area, which, until 2012, had been relatively unaffected by the overall increase in the population up to 1999 or by the subsequent decline.
Figure 5. The annual population estimate of Greenland White-fronted Goose (green squares), with numbers recorded at Wexford (blue diamonds) and Islay (red circles), spring 1983-2016 (Fox et al. 2016)
For further information see Fox et al. 2016
Fox, A.D, I. Francis, D. Norriss & Alyn Walsh. 2016. Report of the 2015/2016 International Census of Greenland White-fronted Geese. Greenland White-fronted Goose Study / National Parks & Wildlife Service report, Kalo.
Previous annual results will be archived here. Annual Greenland White-fronted Goose Study reports can be found on the Reports & newsletter page.
Greenland White-fronted Goose Study census reports: See the Reports & newsletter page
Fox, A.D. 2003. The Greenland White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons flavirostris. The annual cycle of a migratory herbivore on the European continental fringe. Doctor’s dissertation (Dsc). National Environmental Research Institute, Denmark.
Fox, A.D., D.W. Norriss, D.A. Stroud & H.J. Wilson. 1994. Greenland White-fronted Geese in Ireland and Britain 1982/83-1993/94 – the first twelve years of international conservation monitoring. Greenland White-fronted Goose Study Research Report No. 8.
Other relevant material
Greenland White-fronted Goose Study site inventory
Hunting in Iceland: The numbers of Greenland White-fronted Geese hunted in Iceland are available here.