The Welsh Assembly Government earlier this year took the decision not to ban the shooting of an endangered species, the Greenland White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons flavirostris), meaning that Wales remains the only country on the flight path of this endangered species where they can still be legally shot and killed.
The Greenland White-fronted goose is the most distinctive of the circumpolar white fronted goose and breeds in west Greenland and migrates via Iceland to exclusively winter in Ireland and Britain. Research by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), using GPS recorders, has shown that their epic migration includes an incredible flight up and over a 1.5 mile high ice cap.
The population of these geese, as a whole, is declining and they have been of conservation concern since the late 1970s when sharp declines triggered protection from hunting on their wintering grounds. They receive heavy statutory protection and are listed on Annex 1 of EC Birds Directive and Schedule 2 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended as well as being considered endangered under IUCN Red Data List criteria. However, since the mid 1990s the population has again declined sharply. According to the WWT, numbers have dropped from over 35,000 to less than 25,000 birds in a decade and in 2010 they became one of the first sub-species to be red listed in the UK Birds of Conservations concern report.
Scientific evidence has shown that the species is extremely vulnerable to hunting pressures and international agreements identify that any additional risk of mortality or disturbance on both breeding and wintering grounds are unacceptable. Whilst very small numbers regularly over winter in Wales, Welsh wintering birds, according to the Welsh Assembly in their own recent consultation report, are crucial to maintenance of the national and international distributional range of their population. In their consultation report, the Welsh Assembly also admit that failure to take appropriate steps to reduce as far as possible Greenland White-fronted geese adult mortality could be seen as a failure to meet both international and domestic conservation obligations. But unlike Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland where they are fully protected, there is no current ban on the shooting and killing of this endangered bird in Wales. A voluntary ban is in place on part of the Dyfi estuary in Wales but there is evidence that the geese also use other areas away from the estuary in mid and North Wales where no voluntary agreements are in place. As it currently stands the situation in Wales is concerning; for the Dyfi estuary itself the numbers have dropped from 167 individuals arriving in 2000 to just 55 birds last winter. Many former wintering grounds for these birds have already disappeared and their existing range in Wales has already declined markedly.
Conservation charities and other organisations have been pushing for a complete ban but earlier this year the Welsh Government decided against this, merely preferring an extension of the existing voluntary protection on part of the Dyfi Estuary going against advice from the RSPB and the Welsh Ornithological Society (WOS) among others who have stated that only an outright ban can ensure the birds protection. So at present, Wales has the distinction of being the only country in the bird’s range where they can be legally shot and killed even though they admit that they are obligated to give this endangered species adequate protection. The RSPB, WOS and other conservation organisations expressed their shock at this decision not to build on previous initiative with regard the voluntary ban and introduce full legal protection across Wales.
In a consultation earlier this year, the WOS set out why Greenland White-fronted Goose should be protected. Their statement said: "Although removing any species from the 'huntable list' reduces the availability of quarry to the wildfowling community, where there is a clear scientific case that hunting cannot be undertaken in a sustainable fashion, this has to be the responsible action of government. There is a very strong scientific case that hunting of Greenland White-fronted Geese on the wintering grounds is additive to normal levels of mortality, based on studies at Wexford Slobs in Ireland, where the difference in population size from one year to the next matched the predicted change in numbers where hunting was factored in. In other words, every goose shot was not part of a 'huntable surplus' that would have died from other causes in any case, but in addition to other sources of mortality and meant one less goose the following year."
While WOS has acknowledged that long running voluntary bans on shooting are in place at some wetlands such as the Dyfi Estuary, it believes that nothing less than a statutory ban on shooting will ensure its protection. The society is concerned that any voluntary ban could be lifted at any time and that the current approach does not cover all the sites where this declining subspecies spends the winter.
WOS President, TV presenter Iolo Williams, said “There is a very strong scientific case to ban the hunting of Greenland White-fronted Geese. Studies on their wintering grounds at Wexford Slobs, Ireland, clearly showed that the geese are extremely sensitive to hunting mortality.