Svalbard Barnacle Goose
The Svalbard population of Barnacle Goose breeds on the Svalbard archipelago, mainly in Spitsbergen, and winters predominately at the Solway Firth, which is on the border of Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland and Cumbria, England.
The wintering range of this population is small and the birds tend to remain within 5 km of their roost sites on the mudflats of the Solway coast, ranging along the firth to sites no more than 50 km apart.
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)
Least Concern (Europe and EU27)
not huntable, but licensed control occurs in Scotland
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): 183% increase
Ten-year trend (2002/03 – 2012/13): 29% increase
Variable (generally 5-15%) but more low years (<5%) since late 1990s.
Annual estimates of the population size, percentage of young (%) and mean brood size (young per successful pair) of Svalbard Barnacle Goose, 2003/04-2015/16; recorded at the Solway Estuary.
Season Estimate of population size Percentage of young (%) Mean brood size 2015/16 41,000 7.8 1.9 2014/15 37,300 5.0 1.68 2013/14 38,100 7.0 1.98 2012/13 31,000 5.5 1.6 2011/12 33,900 13.9 2.1 2010/11 35,900 10.8 2.5 2009/10 32,800 5.1 1.8 2008/09 29,900 8.7 2.0 2007/08 29,000 12.8 2.4 2006/07 25,000 14.6 2.2 2005/06 23,900 7.9 2.5 2004/05 26,900 2.1 1.5 2003/04 27,000 4.0 2.0
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 Svalbard population of Barnacle Goose breeds in the Svalbard archipelago, mostly in western Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands. Migration begins in late August and early September, and many stage on Bear Island, Norway, for up to three weeks before continuing their migration southwards. Some, however, are known to migrate direct to the wintering grounds of the Solway Firth, on the border between Scotland and England. Return passage begins in mid- April, and during this migration most birds stop over at Helgeland and Vesterålen, off the west coast of mainland Norway, for two to three weeks, before reaching Svalbard by the end of May (Griffin 2008).
Flyway of the Svalbard Barnacle Goose
The wintering range of this population is small and the birds tend to remain within 5 km of their roost sites on the mudflats of the Solway coast, ranging along the firth to sites no more than 50 km apart. Winter habitat use is confined to saltmarsh and improved pastures on the Solway. Feeding occurs preferentially on Trifolium repens in autumn on saltmarsh habitats, supplemented by grasses and herbs, and on Lolium perenne on pasture. In autumn, the geese may also forage in stubble fields for spilt grain. Four principal areas on the Solway are used, namely farmland around Caerlaverock and Southerness on the Scottish side of the Solway and Rockcliffe Marsh and Newton Marsh on the English side (Owen & Black 1999, Griffin & Mackley 2004). However, other areas are, to an increasing extent, also being used including areas along the River Nith towards Dumfies, and areas further west around Colvend, Auchencairn, Rascarrel and Wigtown later in the winter. Also to a lesser extent, sites further east around Redkirk and Gretna are also being utilised.
With increasing numbers of birds in the population, conflicts have arisen as a result of damage to agricultural crops by grazing geese. Consequently, in 1993, Scottish Natural Heritage established a goose management scheme to help alleviate such problems.
Griffin, L.R. 2008. Identifying the pre-breeding areas of the Svalbard Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis between mainland Norway and Svalbard: an application of GPS satellite-tracking techniques. Vogelwelt 128: 226-232.
Griffin, L.R. & E.R. Mackley. 2004. WWT Svalbard Barnacle Goose Project Report 2003-2004. WWT Report, Slimbridge.
Owen, M. & J.M. Black. 1999. Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis: Svalbard. 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.
Annual counts and age assessments
Coordinated counts of Svalbard Barnacle Geese are undertaken at least once a month from September through to May, with weekly counts carried out during the arrival and departure periods. Age assessments are also made, during which counters record the proportion of first winter geese present within flocks as well as brood sizes (i.e. the size of family groups) to determine the breeding success of the population. Surveys of Svalbard Barnacle Geese are organised by WWT as part of a long-term research programme on this population.
Results from these surveys can be found on the ‘Latest results’ page.
Find out more about age assessments
Results for 2015/16 [added August 2016]
The adopted total for the population wintering on the Solway Firth in 2015/16 was 41,000 geese (the mean of four counts that were within 10% of the maximum count of 42,017, rounded up to the nearest 100). This represents an increase of 3,700 birds on last winter’s adopted total of 37,300 geese (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Annual census-derived estimates of the number of Svalbard Barnacle Geese wintering on the Solway Firth, 1958/59 – 2015/16.
Total population counts of Svalbard Barnacle Geese built up slowly on the Solway Firth with only 3,000 present by the start of October. The first arrival of Barnacle Geese thought to be genuine migrants were recorded at the WWT Caerlaverock reserve on 25 September and there were only 800 present at the end of that month. The numbers recorded then built fairly steadily up throughout October with nearly 40,000 geese present on the Solway by 22 October, only 2,017 fewer than the peak count recorded at the end of April. Over 35,000 geese were recorded quite regularly – five out of nine counts – between the end of October and the end of April.
The first sign of spring migration was evident by 27 April when over 29,000 geese, over 70% of the Solway population, gathered on Rockcliffe Marsh, Cumbria. By 10 May this had dropped to 11,880 in the Rockcliffe area with zero geese recorded elsewhere on the Solway. By 18 May 2015, only 2,050 Barnacle Geese remained on Rockcliffe Marsh, the remainder being in Norway or Svalbard, with just 30 remaining at the end of that month.
Due to count variation, with possible inaccuracies and the chance of double-counting, an adopted count total for the population is derived by averaging those counts within 10% of the maximum recorded during the winter. In 2015/16 the counts of 39,652 on 22 October, 41,183 on 10 February, 40,919 on 13 April and 42,017 on 27 April, fulfilled this criterion and were thus averaged to produce an adopted Solway total of 41,000 Barnacle Geese (rounded up to the nearest 100; c.f. 37,300 in 2014/15).
The breeding success of Svalbard Barnacle Geese sampled on the Solway Firth from October 2015 to January 2016 ranged from 2.2% to 18.8% (c.f. 2.7% to 14.7% in 2014/15) with a mean of 7.8% young from 16 flocks with 6,654 geese sampled (c.f. 5.0%; n = 15 flocks; 13,104 geese sampled in 2014/15). Across the same area, the total number of broods sampled was 95, with a mean family size of 1.9 young, range 1-4 young (c.f. 1.7 young; n = 215 broods; range 1-4 young in 2014/15).
Figure 2. The mean percentage of young (blue columns) and mean brood size (red circles) of Svalbard Barnacle Geese, 1958/59 – 2015/16.
It is clear from the three late winter counts recorded in 2015/16 that the Svalbard Barnacle Goose population has continued to increase and has now passed 40,000 birds.
The consistency in the counts recorded between October and April, as with last winter, was perhaps due to the relatively benign conditions with the first prolonged periods of frosts not coming until February and so it was felt that the geese did not spread out across the Solway as much as usual due to food resources being largely maintained.
This is a remarkable example of population recovery, from less than 400 birds just 70 years ago, which can be attributed to the conservation actions implemented across the length of its international flyway. Even so, the population remains reliant on just a handful of limited roosting sites on the Inner Solway and in that regard should still be considered as vulnerable.
Previous annual results will be archived here.
Other relevant material
Norwegian Polar Institute species information for Svalbard