The pools have been rather quiet this winter, with far fewer wintering duck than has been the case in recent years. A few dozen tufted duck and mallard mingle with single-figure counts of coot and the occasional gadwall, underlining the effect that a run of mild weather can have on their numbers. The duck that would normally be here, wintering on our lakes, gravel pits and quieter pools, have remained on the Continent. Of course, all of this could change with the arrival of some properly cold weather.
The run of mild winters has seen many migratory birds winter closer to their breeding grounds, a behaviour known as ‘short-stopping’. Britain and Ireland have provided important wintering grounds for many wildfowl and waders, the influence of the Gulf Stream lifting our winter temperatures by a few degrees to deliver more favourable conditions than are to be found on the Continent. As the average winter temperatures have increased, so the conditions elsewhere have improved and the benefits of moving to Britain have reduced.
Such changes in wintering behaviour can be seen in the counts of wildfowl collected at sites across Europe. These reveal a redistribution in wintering numbers for species like goldeneye, whose numbers have decreased in Britain and The Netherlands but risen significantly in Finland and Sweden, where waterbodies have increasingly remained unfrozen during the winter months.
One consequence of these changing patterns of winter distribution may be that our network of protected sites – many of which may have been designated because of their wintering wildfowl populations – might no longer provide protection. If duck no longer winter on a site where they are protected but instead winter at a site where they can be shot, then this could have important implications. The latest research suggests that while currently protected sites might lose some of their key species, they are likely to gain others and so remain important. However, there is a need to monitor what is happening at other sites, outside of the protected area network, and to establish to what extent they are now being used by wintering waterfowl and to assess whether they need protection. It is interesting to reflect that what is happening on my local waterbodies has such wider relevance.