Justification of Red List Category
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend is not known, but the population is not believed to be decreasing sufficiently rapidly to approach the thresholds under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
The global population is inferred to number 490,000 mature individuals (Partners in Flight 2020). The European population is estimated at 1,500-1,800 pairs, which equates to 3,000-3,600 mature individuals (BirdLife International 2015).
The overall population trend is uncertain, as some populations are decreasing, while others are stable, have unknown trends or are increasing (Wetlands International 2020). The population in North America is increasing (Meehan et al. 2018; Partners in Flight 2020). The European population trend is unknown (BirdLife International 2015).
Behaviour This species is fully migratory, the main routes of migration being along Arctic coastlines (Snow and Perrins 1998). It arrives on the breeding grounds in early-June where it may breed in small, loose colonies or dispersed in single pairs (especially in the high Arctic where the habitat is unsuitable for large groups) (Madge and Burn 1988; del Hoyo et al. 1992; Scott and Rose 1996; Snow and Perrins 1998; Kear 2005). There is a high degree of synchrony in egg laying and hatching, with the adults moulting c.10 days after the young hatch (mid-July to mid-August) during which they become flightless for c.21-30 days (Johnsgard 1978; Scott and Rose 1996). Most individuals moult near the breeding grounds although immatures, unsuccessful breeders and some more southerly breeding groups may undertake pre-moult migrations and form large moulting concentrations well-away from nesting areas (Johnsgard 1978; Flint et al. 1984; Scott and Rose 1996). After the post-breeding moult flocks leave the breeding grounds in early-September with some arriving in wintering areas as early as mid-September, others making stopovers on route and arriving later (Madge and Burn 1988). The species leaves its wintering quarters again from mid-March to mid-April (Madge and Burn 1988). During the non-breeding season the species remains gregarious, gathering in groups of only a few to several thousands of individuals, although it is rarely found in very large flocks (Snow and Perrins 1998; Kear 2005).
Habitat Breeding The species breeds in coastal Arctic tundra in or close to wet coastal meadows with abundant grassy vegetation and on tundra-covered flats with tidal streams (only just above the high tide line) (Johnsgard 1978; del Hoyo et al. 1992; Kear 2005). In some parts of its range it shows a preference for nesting on small grassy islands in tundra lakes and rivers, especially if nesting Sabine's Gulls Xema sabini, Snowy Owls Bubo scandiaca, Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus or large raptors are present to deter predators (Johnsgard 1978; Flint et al. 1984; Madge and Burn 1988; Kear 2005). High Arctic nesters may also breed widely dispersed over icy tundra, well-away from water (Kear 2005). Non-breeding Outside of the breeding season the species becomes predominantly coastal, inhabiting estuaries, tidal mudlflats, sandy shores, coastal saltmarshes (especially in the spring) and shallow muddy bays (Madge and Burn 1988; del Hoyo et al. 1992; Scott and Rose 1996; Kear 2005). In recent years the species has taken to grazing on coastal cultivated grasslands and winter cereal fields, but rarely occurs on freshwater wetlands except on passage (Madge and Burn 1988; Scott and Rose 1996).
Diet The species is mainly herbivorous although it may take animal matter (e.g. fish eggs, worms, snails and amphipods) (Johnsgard 1978; del Hoyo et al. 1992). Breeding In its breeding habitat the diet of the species consists of mosses, lichens, aquatic plants, sedges, tundra grass Dupontia spp., arrowgrass Triglochin spp. and saltmarsh grass Puccinellia spp. (Alaska), although the young may also take insects and aquatic invertebrates (Johnsgard 1978; del Hoyo et al. 1992; Kear 2005). Non-breeding Outside of the breeding season the species predominantly takes marine microscopic and macroscopic algae (e.g. seaweeds, Ulva spp.) and other aquatic plants linked with saline or brackish waters in the intertidal zone (e.g. especially eelgrass Zostera spp., as well as Ruppia maritima, Spartina alterniflora, Salicornia spp., and arrowgrass Triglochin spp.) (Madge and Burn 1988; del Hoyo et al. 1992; Kear 2005).
Breeding site The nest is a shallow depression on the ground (Flint et al. 1984; del Hoyo et al. 1992). Although the species often nests close to water (del Hoyo et al. 1992) typically within a few hundred metres of the tideline, high Arctic nesters may breed on icy tundra well away from water (some nearly up to 10 km inland) often near boulders where the snow clears first (del Hoyo et al. 1992; Snow and Perrins 1998; Kear 2005).
Management information An investigation carried out in one of the species's wintering areas (UK) found that it was most likely to forage on dry, improved grasslands that had high abundances of the grass Lolium perenne, were between 5 and 6 ha in area, and were at a distance of up to 1.5 km inland or 4-5 km along the coast from coastal roosting sites (Vickery and Gill 1999). The species was found to show a preference for grasslands with short, dense swards c.5 cm in height, a characteristic that can be gained through summer management plans involving either mechanical cutting, livestock (sheep or cattle) grazing regimes, or cutting and then grazing (although over longer periods of time the selective grazing of sheep rather than cattle, and frequent rather than infrequent cutting may be more likely to enhance tillering and produce the short, dense sward favoured by this species) (Vickery and Gill 1999). Fertilising the grassland with nitrogen in the autumn at a rate of 50 kg N/ha was found to increase the overall species use of the habitat by 21% compared with unfertilised areas, and fertilising at a rate of 75 kg N/ha was found to increase the overall species use of the habitat by 9-29% and to remove any preference the geese showed for short sward heights (between 5 and 11 cm) (Vickery and Gill 1999). In other fertilising experiments grazing intensity of the species was found to increase linearly with increasing levels of fertiliser (from 0 kg N/ha to 150 kg N/ha), although responses in grazing intensity at fertiliser levels lower than 50 kg N/ha were found to be short-lived (c.2 months after fertiliser application) (Vickery and Gill 1999).
This species is threatened by hunting (Kear 2005). In its winter range the species may be persecuted by farmers, as in recent years it has increasingly taken to grazing on cultivated grasslands and winter cereal fields near the coast (Scott and Rose 1996). It is further susceptible to disturbance from vehicles, although it is relatively tolerant of human disturbance, e.g. walkers, compared to other species (Vickery and Gill 1999; Burton et al. 2002). Habitat within the breeding range is degraded through the expansion of industrial developments (Lewis et al. 2020).
The species may also be threatened in the future by reductions in food supplies following the return of a disease of the eelgrass Zostera marina (a staple food) (Scott and Rose 1996). It can use alternative feeding sources as demonstrated following the collapse of eelgrasses in the Netherlands (1930-1940), but these need to be highly nutritious and diverse. It has been shown that nest success is dependent on fat reserves that have been acquired in the staging areas (Ebbinge and Spaans 1995).
The nesting success of breeding pairs in Svalbard is greatly reduced as a result of Arctic fox Vulpes lagopus predation (Madsen et al. 1992), and the species is susceptible to avian influenza so may be threatened by future outbreaks of the virus (Melville and Shortridge 2006). Inbreeding depression has also been identified as a threat to current population growth (Harrison et al. 2011). Nevertheless, these threats seem to have little or no impact on the overall population size.
The species however appears susceptible to climate variability, with the probability of breeding being negatively correlated to the sea surface temperature (Sedinger et al. 2006); hence climate change may lead to a reduction in reproductive success in the future.
Conservation Actions Underway
CMS Appendix II. EU Birds Directive Annex II. In Europe, the following conservation actions are underway: In England and the Netherlands alternative feeding sites have been established to prevent conflict with agriculture. Dutch farmers who suffer damage from geese are paid compensation and in the German Wadden Sea farmers are subsidized to accept foraging geese (Tucker and Heath 1994).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Agree upon an international management plan including policies on crop damage and shooting (Tucker and Heath 1994). Assess methods of predator control in Svalbard. Continue to provide alternative feeding sites.
Text account compilers
Ashpole, J & Malpas, L.
BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Branta bernicla. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 06/07/2022. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2022) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 06/07/2022.