Greenland white-fronted Geese Anser albifrons flavirostris are Europe’s rarest geese and approximately 45% of the world population (c.8,500) of these geese winters at the Wexford slobs. The other key wintering site is Islay island off southwest Scotland.
Greenland white-fronted Geese breed in the arctic coastal fringe of western Greenland and winter in Ireland. In Greenland they nest amongst hummocks in the tundra up to 700m above sea level. The young geese are looked after by both parents and migrate as families to Ireland in the autumn (via south-west Iceland). They fly with favourable winds and can burn off 20% of their body weight on the flight. Each stage, Greenland-Iceland and Iceland-Ireland, takes about 18 hours. When they arrive in Wexford they eat grass, roots, slit grain in stubble, and fodder crops planted as part of their management.
Greenland White-fronted geese are also known as the Bog Goose, due to their preference for bogs. However as Irish bogs were increasingly drained and exploited in the early 20th century, the geese had to look around for an alternative wintering ground and first started visiting the Slobs in the 1910s. Their numbers here grew to several thousand by the mid-1930s before declining in the 1970s. A shooting moratorium was introduced in Ireland in 1982/3 and numbers increased again to 10,000 (with suitable weather conditions in west Greenland also at this time). However, since 1999 there has been a decline again, accompanied by smaller broods of young birds. Shooting was banned in Iceland in 2006, and in Greenland in 2009.
The Greenland White-fronted Goose is listed on Annex I of the EC Birds Directive. The slobs are protected within the Wexford Slobs and Harbour Special SPA/Ramsar Site, and it is a designated National Nature Reserve. However, this area is not fully secure for these geese which are threatened by changes in farming practices and a proliferation of one-off houses and other disturbances around the site. However, climate change is probably the most pressing threat to the species. Warmer sea temperatures since the early 1990s have resulted in more frontal systems traversing further north increasing precipitation (as snow) in west Greenland during April and May, when the geese arrive to breed. A blanket of deep snow covering the ground when the hungry birds arrive from Ireland – exhausted after the long migration – is not a good start to a successful breeding season.
It is hoped that this ‘Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation‘ could reverse again and result in improved breeding success. However, currently global numbers are falling back to 1980s levels. These bog geese did adapt to the destruction of their wintering habitats in Ireland, can they now adapt to climate change?