13. December 2009


A short history of GWGS

… and an introduction to some of the characters involved with the organisation and the Greenland White-fronted Goose over the years
This very brief account is inevitably rather self-indulgent and at present compiled in a relatively short time.  We do hope to revise this to maintain the highest standards of accuracy and to extend this document as an archive and historical overview of the organisation when time permits.  For the meantime, we offer this rather eccentric narrative as a guide to folk not aware of GWGS, its objectives and its multifarious supporters.

How it started

The whole idea behind establishing a project to study the Greenland White-fronted Goose grew out of the desire of Alison Higgs (nee Jennings) to return to the arctic, and to a large extent, the object of the planned 1979 expedition was determined after the decision had been made to organise an expedition to Greenland!  In looking for possible participants to join such an expedition, Alison contacted David Stroud, then an under-graduate at Aberystwyth University, who had recently travelled to Iceland on a biological expedition.  David in turn suggested involving Adrian Fowles and Tony Fox, both keen birdwatchers, both of whom lived on the Dyfi Estuary.  The little flock of Greenland White-fronted Geese wintering on the Dyfi had declined from over 200 individuals to number 34 at minimum in the mid-1970s, despite no obvious local cause for the decrease on the wintering grounds there.  The decision to make the geese the focus of the expedition was an obvious one, and the idea was born.  The dream was turned into reality thanks to the incredible efforts of Will Higgs, who functioned as a full time project organiser in the period up to departure.   GWGS organised its first expedition to west Greenland in 1979, which was led by Alison.  This was a twelve-person, 1082 person-day trip during May-September, which concentrated upon studying all aspects of the summer ecology of the geese in Eqalummiut nunaat in central west Greenland.  The expedition produced a great deal of new information, much of it published in a report that was eventually published privately in 1981. The video below features archive footage of that first expedition (there is no audio track).

1979 May to August Eqalungmiut Nunat from Anne Fox on Vimeo

What happened next?

The expedition was pivotal, since David Stroud went on to carry out a detailed study of Greenland White-fronted Geese on Islay, the most important British resort for the population.  He also began the annual census of the wintering flocks (see below), and the group, initially organised around the 1979 expedition, became more widely focussed. The general declines in overall numbers in the population at that time had, in any case, attracted the concern of many, and 1979 also marked a turning point with the appearance of an impressive synthesis of the changes in numbers and distribution of Greenland White-fronted Geese throughout the wintering grounds, published in the journal Irish Birds. This analysis was the combined efforts of Major Robin Ruttledge in Ireland and Malcolm Ogilvie in Britain.  Robin Ruttledge was one of the true pioneers of Irish ornithology, and a passionate fan of the Greenland Whitefront in Ireland.  He had been the first to recognise in the early 1900s that the geese used bogland habitats in Ireland to sustain themselves through winter.  It was also he, and his impressive network of contacts scattered across the country, that gathered the first attempt at a comprehensive Irish list of their wintering sites and their inter-relationships.  Malcolm Ogilvie was at that time in charge of the goose count networks (and a great deal more) at the then Wildfowl Trust (latterly Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust) at Slimbridge.  Although Hugh Boyd had co-ordinated counts of Greenland White-fronted Goose numbers on Islay from the 1960s, the remote winter resorts of the Greenland White-fronted Geese meant that few were covered by the regular National Wildfowl Count, many of which were difficult to census.  The review Malcolm presented of British wintering flocks of Greenland White-fronted Geese was therefore also a very important contribution at that time.  Because of the attention the Ruttledge & Ogilvie synthesis brought to the recent declines in the global numbers of this population, Myrfyn Owen, also at the Wildfowl Trust drew attention to their plight.  Through representations to government, a number of recommendations were made to improve the status of the population.  As a result, the population was effectively afforded protection from hunting in Britain under legislation enacted under the Wildlife and Countryside Act passed in 1981.

Winter monitoring  started

It was clear at that time, however, that the poor knowledge regarding the numbers, status and distribution of Greenland White-fronted Geese on the wintering grounds could not be allowed to continue.  Unlike all the other populations of geese wintering in Britain and Ireland, there was no scheme that could deliver annual counts from all known wintering localities.  For this reason, GWGS attempted to establish a network of counters who could carry out an annual assessment of the numbers at all of the regular wintering sites, and report this on an annual basis in order to monitor the change in the overall population size.  David Stroud co-ordinated the first complete British census in winter 1982/83, published the results in Bird Study and continued to organise the census for many years.  Since the early 1990s, Ian Francis, a member of the 1984 expedition to Greenland, has co-organised the annual census, now reported annually to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge, under a subcontract from their Joint Nature Conservation Committee contract to supply waterfowl monitoring data to government.  The count network regularly produces age ratios, brood sizes, collar readings and a wealth of count and other information unfailing year after year, and GWGS is deeply indebted to this wonderful network of dedicated individuals for their sterling efforts.

Meanwhile in Ireland…

In a move that typifies the arrogance of the young and inexperienced, GWGS attempted in the early 1980s to construct a similar count network in Ireland, only to find that the then Forest and Wildlife Service in the Office of Public Works there considered this a government remit. They quickly developed census coverage in the Republic of Ireland, extended, with the help of the RSPB, to Northern Ireland. However, in this way, GWGS had encountered John Wilson, David Norriss and Oscar Merne, all of whom continue to work tirelessly on Greenland White-fronted Geese in Ireland in Irish government service (latterly for Dúchas, The Heritage Service). So started a period of the most remarkable international collaboration on Greenland White-fronted Geese.  Dave Norriss continues to organise the census through the island of Ireland and he and John have stimulated a great deal of research and conservation activity in Ireland, most obviously through their papers on home ranges (in the journal Ardea), disturbance and habitat use (in the journal Wildfowl).  They also employed Eleanor Mayes for a period who worked up some very nice material on feeding ecology (also published in Ardea).   The foresight of this team, in establishing an individual marking scheme and organising the annual census has made a huge contribution to our knowledge relating to Greenland White-fronted Geese.


One of the objectives of the expedition has been to capture, and individually mark, a number of geese on the breeding grounds to enable identification of those individuals back on the wintering grounds.  In 1979, the expedition had marked a modest 98 geese with engraved plastic leg rings, and in the winter following, hungry for resightings of these birds, many of the expedition members set out to search known resorts for the marked geese.   These tours around Scotland generated numbers of resightings and, perhaps as important, established contacts with local observers prepared to undertake regular counts and search out and identify individually marked birds.  However, leg rings proved frustrating: in even moderately long grass, they could not be seen or at best were hard to read.  Although the subsequent 1984 GWGS expedition to west Greenland again used leg rings, it became evident that larger more conspicuous neck collars would be more effective in generating resightings.  In winter 1982, John Wilson and Alyn Walsh initiated a programme of marking geese individually at Wexford Slobs, using neck collars.  Initially tutored by Andrew St Joseph, this programme was quickly self sufficient, and continues to the present, with some 50-100 newly caught birds captured at Wexford Slobs every year, thanks to the help of Paddy O’Sullivan and the warden at Wexford, Chris Wilson.  Geese have similarly been caught and marked in other parts of Ireland, and a very few captured on Islay in Scotland, thanks to Steve Percival and Malcolm Ogilvie.  More recently, birds have been collared in Greenland in summer and in Iceland on spring and autumn passage (the vast majority captured thanks to the incredible talents of Alyn Walsh), to add to our knowledge of dispersal.  Even in the early years, the number and detail of records coming in needed careful curation in a database, and the establishment of this common database quickly became another cornerstone of GWGS activity.  The resighting information now numbers over 50,000 records of over 2,000 individually marked birds and is stored in an Access database.  Over 200 different observers have contributed records of marked birds, but again, it is Alyn Walsh and his winter observations from Wexford that constitute the large majority.

The work continues globally

The work of GWGS continues in many strange and mysterious ways, relying as it does on the institutional ties of its many supporters.  In this way, it has been possible to obtain funding for students and travel to Iceland to undertake studies there.  In the early 1990s this involved considerable support from WWT, especially to enable expeditions to southern Iceland to study Pink-feet, luckily in the expert company of Hugh Boyd and many Icelanders (but where a little time was available to look at Whitefronts).  Together with financial support from the Irish government, WWT also supported Steph Warren to undertake an analysis of count and resighting data to review progress on the Irish based studies of Greenland White-fronted Geese.  From the mid-1990s the Danish National Environment Research Institute has also hosted students studying Whitefronts, notably Jens Nyeland Kristiansen, whose Ph.D on feeding studies in Iceland and competition with Canada Geese on the breeding areas of west Greenland marked significant steps in the advancement of our knowledge.  Timme Nyegaard’s master’s thesis was equally impressive in documenting the energetics of spring staging geese in Iceland.  Iceland as a spring and autumn staging area obviously continues to play an important role in the annual life cycle of the geese, but no less a significant role for GWGS.  The Study has established many good friends and colleagues in the country, without whom the achievements would never have been possible.  Although invidious to single out individuals, we should mention Óli Einarsson, Johann-Óli Hilmarsson, Arnor Sigfusson, as well as Björn Thorsteinsson and the staff at Hvanneyri University for particular support.  The expeditions to Iceland of the 1990s have also been supported by the most incredible bands of volunteers, most notably including Hugh Boyd (who not only pioneered all Greenland White-fronted Goose work in the 1950s, but also gave the fledging GWGS his kindness, support and help when we most needed it in the 1970s), John Turner and Roy King in recent years.

As well as trips to Iceland, GWGS has also organised a modest numbers of expeditions back to Greenland since the trips in 1979 and 1984.  Ringing expeditions were organised to an easily accessible area north of Kangerlussuaq airport in 1989, 1992 and 1997, but in recent years these areas have been colonised by Canada Geese and numbers of White-fronted Geese have virtually disappeared.  Jens Nyeland and Nigel Jarrett carried out pioneering studies of competitive interactions between Greenland White-fronted and Canad Geese in 1998.

Population ups and downs

The period since 1978, when GWGS came into existence, has been a fascinating one for Greenland White-fronted Geese.  The attention drawn to their plight resulted in their protection in Britain and Ireland, and in a shortening of the season in Greenland.  These measures undoubtedly had a dramatic effect on the population trajectory at that time, benefiting also from a run of good breeding seasons.  So in the 1980s, numbers increased in a manner expected if hunting mortality were additive (i.e. in addition to natural mortality), rather than compensatory (i.e. that the hunting kill removed individuals which would have died anyway).  The total population apparently peaked at c. 35,500 in the late 1990s, but since then, numbers have declined, so at the time of writing (spring 2002) numbers have fallen back to just 26,800 individuals.  Given the substantial period of increase from the late 1970s until the late 1990s, this recent decline is, of course, of only modest concern, especially since our time perspective over a matter of two decades pales into insignificance compared to the decades past since the last glaciation.  The recent declines are largely attributed to poor production of young over 5 out of the 6 last breeding seasons, so that recruitment has failed to replace natural losses through mortality in any one year.  But if these declines continue, there will be some need to assess what the root cause may be and how conservation measures might reverse these current trends.  Any such efforts will necessitate international collaboration and a concerted effort throughout the range, as was evident in the 1993 Wexford Workshop that drafted a management plan for the race and resulted in the Wexford Declaration.  GWGS made a considerable contribution to the process at that time, and we hope that the management planning process, started so effectively 9 years ago, will be taken up again in the very near future.  We would also hope that GWGS would again be able to play an important role in safeguarding the population for the future.

This web site has been developed and is maintained by Anne Fox on behalf of the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study (GWGS).   Quite why she should sacrifice herself to this task remains obscure, especially given her minimal interest in birds and that the fact that this particular cause has caused her abandonment by her partner Tony on innumerable occasions.