Thursday, 21 May 2015

To Kill a Lesser White-fronted Goose

There is an intra-Scandinavian war (or should that be inter..) going on at the moment and the victims are poor Lesser White-fronted Geese (dverggås). I have closely followed the fortunes of this species since I’ve lived in Norway and it was one my birding highlights to see the remnants of the wild Scandinavian population on their spring resting grounds in Finnmark in May 2011. There are now only around 15 breeding pairs left of the original wild population and the Norwegian Government and Birdlife Norway are spearheading an effort to protect and increase this population that involves efforts on the breeding grounds, wintering grounds and migration route. These birds are extremely vulnerable and just one act of illegal hunting could make a serious dent in the population. Breeding success has also been variable and even though many (red) foxes have been killed on the breeding grounds it seems that predation takes a serious toll on the goslings and it is only in lemming years that there is high survival of goslings. A very informative and up-to-date website summarises this pan-European conservation effort.

As this population is so small and its wintering grounds in Greece well known it is in fact unlikely that many (any?) birds seen in Western Europe are actually wild and they are probably birds from the Swedish reintroduced population which is the source of the battle.

The last breeding birds in Sweden were in the 1989 and with no native population to protect they have chosen reintroduction with the Swedish Hunting Association leading the work ?!? The first reintroductions did actually begin before the species disappeared from Sweden but were made in a different area. This reintroduction also had the goal of getting the geese to migrate to Holland in the winter and thus be safer and this was achieved by releasing the goslings with Barnacle Geese foster parents that already used this flyway. This reintroduction however stopped in 1999 when it was discovered that the birds being used were genetically not pure Lesser White-fronts and actually had DNA from Greater White-fronted Geese.

In addition to not being genetically pure, they are migrating in a way the wild population does not, they are using habitats that the wild population does not (town parks for example) and they also hybridize with Barnacle Geese in Sweden so one really does wonder whether these birds should even be called Lesser White-fronted Geese.

The Swedes though seem determined to continue with reintroductions and from 2006 have imported wild birds from Russia (which hardly has a large enough population to lose any of its own birds) which have been used as breeding stock. Goslings have been released in the Swedish mountains but these birds have shown an amazing inability to join up with the other Lesser White-fronts and have turned up all over the place including Norway and England.
Recently one of the birds turned up with the wild birds in Northern Norway and promptly got itself shot!  See here and here. Not illegally but under the orders of the Norwegian Government and supported by Birdlife Norway who do not want to risk this bird mating with a wild bird and tainting the gene pool and possibly raising youngsters that will want to migrate differently to the rest of the wild population.

The Swedes are up in arms with Birdlife Sweden saying the Norwegians have lost a chance to get new genes into the dwindling population and also a chance that it would help take birds on the safe migration route to Holland thus increasing chances of survival.

The Norwegians are  however indignant that this bird should not be allowed to risk the purity of the wild birds but hang on haven’t birds been released at precisely the site where this bird was shot? You would be hard pressed to find any information on this now although at the time it was widely spoken about and I actually saw one of the released birds in May 2011 and mention it on this very blog. In fact it now seems the Norwegians want to pretend this never actually happened. However this document in English from a Norwegian Govt. Minister shows how proud the Govt was and how Birdlife Norway was a willing participant. How times change and so quickly!

Conservationist often face difficult choices with one species having to be controlled to allow another to recover but it must be very rare for there to be two so different opinions as to the best course of action for one species that one side literally shoots down the others attempt.


  1. The trial with releasing captive bred Lesser White-fronted Geese was stopped as these birds dispersed much like the Swedish ones. There is no cover up there Simon, just you not paying attension. If ever the Swedes would realize the same thing, but they seem hell-bent to degrade LWfG to Ruddy Shelduck type shit-birds.

  2. Hi Tor, I never said it was a cover up BUT it does look like a collective memory loss. I remember that there was lots of information about the release of the birds in Finnmark in 2010 but suddenly nothing more was said and when I try to find mention of this release on I can no longer find any mention of it. Neither has the Norwegian side during the current war of words mentioned, as far as I can see, that Norway has itself released birds in the recent past. I had to personally ask those involved in the Norwegian release what had happened to the released birds as I was unable to find any onformation available in the public domain. If you can actually find any information about the Norwegian released birds and their fate on the internet then I'd love to see it.

    I am fully in favour of the Norwegian approach but I also remember that 5 years ago I did not think to question when the Norwegians released birds in Finnmark as this seemed to be a well thought out and necessary measure....

  3. You will find it in the most recent article on the issue on the official NOF homepage. It says (in Norwegian): "Egne erfaringer fra utsettingsforsøk i Norge viser at slike fugler ikke følger de ville fennoskandiske dverggjessene på trekket.". Full article is found here: Your English readers may give google translate a try :-)

  4. But those few words written in 2015 are very little compared to what was written back in 2010/2011 when Norway was releasing birds and a Norwegian Government Minister and the General Secretary of NOF were happy to endorse this and generate publicity (although as I've said you would struggle to find information on this now).
    Don't misunderstand me: I think it was correct to shoot the Swedish bird and I think the Swedish reintroduction project has no more value than keeping a population in a zoo BUT I think that the Norwegians need to be more open about their own RECENT reintroduction attempt using the same birds and what the learnings were.