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 (CSR 6; Wetlands International 2015)
GB estimate (Musgrove et al. 2011)
GB trend (SUKB 2016)
Breeding success (GSMP survey)
Long-term trend (1988/89 – 2013/14): 210% increase
Ten-year trend (2003/04 – 2013/14): 37% 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 2016/17 41,700 16.0 1.9 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 2016/17 [added August 2017]
The adopted total for this population wintering on the Solway Firth in 2016/17 was 41,700 geese (the mean of the maximum count of 43,425 and the two counts that were within 10% of this, rounded up to the nearest 100). This represents an increase of 700 birds on last winter’s adopted total of 41,000 geese (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Annual census-derived estimates of Svalbard Barnacle Goose population size, 1958/59–2016/17.
The first arrival of Barnacle Geese thought to be genuine migrants from Svalbard was a flock of 29 recorded on the saltmarsh at WWT Caerlaverock on 19 September 2016. The number of Barnacle Geese built up unusually slowly on the Solway as a whole with only 180 present by the morning of 5 October 2016. By late afternoon that day more birds were arriving and on the afternoon of 7 October there were almost 16,000 in the Caerlaverock area. By 12 October there were nearly 26,000 on the Solway as a whole and by 26 October the highest census count of 43,425 for the 2016/17 season was recorded. Over 38,000 geese were recorded quite regularly – five out of six census counts – between the end of October 2016 and the end of April 2017.
The first evidence of spring migration was noted by 19 April by which time over 24,000 geese had gathered on Rockcliffe Marsh, Cumbria (including Redkirk Marsh). By 26 April the Solway total had already dropped by about 15,000 birds, with a small flock lingering on Kirkconnell merse and less than 1,000 in the Mersehead area. By 3 May 2017, the only birds on the Solway remained at Rockcliffe, the remainder having migrated to Norway. The total on Rockcliffe had dropped to just over 3,000 by 9 May; a much lower total than usual for that time of the year.
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 2016/17 the counts of 43,425 on 26 October 2016, 41,687 on 16 November 2016 and 39,829 on 19 April 2017 fulfilled this criterion and were thus averaged to produce an adopted population total of 41,700 Svalbard Barnacle Geese (rounded up to the nearest 100; c.f. 41,000 in 2015/16).
The breeding success of Svalbard Barnacle Geese sampled on the Solway Firth from October 2016 to December 2016 ranged from 0.0% to 42.5% (c.f. 2.2% to 18.8% in 2015/16) with a mean of 16.0% young derived from 15 flocks with 7,352 geese sampled (c.f. 7.8%; n = 16 flocks; 6,654 geese sampled in 2015/16). Across the same area, the total number of broods sampled was 67, with a mean family size of 1.9 young, ranging from 1-4 young (c.f. 1.9 young; n = 95 broods; range 1-4 young in 2015/16).
Figure 2. The mean percentage of young (blue columns) and mean brood size (red circles) of Svalbard Barnacle Geese, 1958/59–2016/17.
Three counts of ~40,000 or over were recorded this winter confirming that the Svalbard Barnacle Goose population has now passed 40,000 (Griffin 2017). While the adopted count does not show as large an increase in the population as might be expected given the 2016 breeding success, this is perhaps an artefact of the averaging process by which the adopted population total is derived.
The consistency in the counts recorded between late October and mid-April, as with last winter, was perhaps due to the constancy of the weather during the winter in that very few episodes of freezing conditions were recorded and so it was felt the geese did not have to spread out across the Solway as much as usual due to food resources being largely maintained by continued grass growth throughout the winter.
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 throughout the flyway. The population remains reliant on just a handful of roosting sites on the Inner Solway and in that regard should still be considered vulnerable.
Many thanks to the Solway census team including Cara Bell, Dave Blackledge, Lana Blakely, Mike Carrier, David Charnock, Rowena Flavelle, Bob Jones, Sarah Livingstone, Eric Neilson, Mike Peacock, Marian & Dave Rochester and Paul Tarling and to Derek Forshaw for counts from Budle Bay.
Griffin, L. 2017. Svalbard Barnacle Goose distribution around the Soway Firth 2016–2017: flock counts from the Solway Goose Management Scheme area. 19pp.
Previous annual results will be archived here.
Other relevant material
Norwegian Polar Institute species information for Svalbard