The Lesser White-fronted Goose LIFE project

The Lesser White-fronted Goose LIFE project (officially “Providing a climate resilient network of critical sites for the Lesser White-fronted Goose in Europe” LIFE19 NAT/LT/000898) is an international EU LIFE Nature project that aims to halt the decline of the critically endangered Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose (Lesser White-fronted Goose) population by implementing concrete conservation actions in Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland. The project started late October 2020 and continues until August 2025.

RECENT OBSERVATIONS

OBJECTIVES

The overall goal of the project is to contribute to restoring the Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose population to a favourable conservation status, as outlined in the International Single Species Action Plan. This means that the Fennoscandian population exceeds 1,000 individuals and is not declining, that the breeding range is stable or expanding and that adequately managed, protected habitat is available at all key sites.

The project targets the Fennoscandian population. Countries participating will be delivering on their obligations under the EU Birds Directive as well as under the AEWA, the Bern Convention and Convention of Migratory Species.

Main objectives

  • To mitigate the effect of climate change by increasing the climate resilience of the existing network of sites within the EU.
  • To provide countries and stakeholders with guidance to implement climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.
  • To increase the availability of suitable habitats for the Lesser White-fronted Goose both in terms of area and number of sites.
  • Τo support adaptation and expansion of the network of critical sites to reflect the changing migratory behaviour of the population.
  • To improve knowledge of Lesser White-fronted Goose migration routes by establishing new monitoring teams and establishing a caretaker network.
  • To identify at least 2 new sites for the species through trained teams, expeditions and eDNA analysis.
  • To improve Natura 2000 network for the Lesser White-fronted Goose conservation by including the Lesser White-fronted Goose as a new trigger species within the current SPAs in Lithuania.
Supporting objectives
  • To improve and ensure long-term national implementation of conservation action by adopting two National Action Plans for the species.
  • To contribute to the international conservation of the Lesser White-fronted Goose and other threatened migratory waterbirds by engaging various international conservation initiatives.
  • To contribute to the adoption of farming practices in the key species stop-over sites while avoiding disturbance of the Lesser White-fronted Goose.
  • To raise awareness about the conservation of the Lesser White-fronted Goose locally and internationally and to showcase the species as a champion for flyway level conservation action.
Kiljuhanhet lentävät, taustalla taivas

ACTIONS

The project applies concrete conservation actions and awareness raising activities, supported and informed by cutting-edge research preparatory and monitoring actions. The actions address the major threats identified for the species in wintering grounds and during migration.

Preparatory actions and action plans

  • Preparation of the habitat management actions in Greece, Lithuania and Hungary
  • Climate change vulnerability assessment of 20 sites, adopting general adaptation guidance, developing national and site-level climate change adaptation plans for 20 sites and incorporating these in site management guidance of 7 project sites
  • Environmental DNA mapping of potential breeding sites in Finnish Lapland
  • Expansion of the Lesser White-fronted Goose monitoring network
  • Adoption of new or revised  National Species Action Plans for the species in Lithuania and Hungary

Purchase of land

  • Purchase of degraded agricultural land within the Evros Delta Special Protected Area in Greece

Conservation actions

  • Habitat restoration in the Evros Delta SPA, Greece, through hydrological management, management of vegetation and grazing
  • Habitat restoration, including hydrology and vegetation management in the Hortobágy National Park SPA, Hungary
  • Habitat restoration in the Nemunas Delta and Senrusne/Sennemune Lakes SPAs, Lithuania, by clearing vegetation to provide open spaces for Lesser White-fronted Goose and other geese, which is also expected to reduce goose-farmer conflicts in the wider area
  • Recognition of Lesser White-fronted Goose as a trigger species in two Special Protected Areas in Lithuania
  • Establishment of Lesser White-fronted Goose monitoring/conservation teams
  • Breeding ground surveys to map new potential breeding areas in Finland based on eDNA findings

Monitoring of the impact of the project actions

  • Monitoring at the key sites to assess the effect of the project actions
  • Monitoring of water, soil and vegetation parameters to assess the effect of habitat management actions
  • Monitoring of socio-economic indicators, ecosystem services and project performance indicators

Public awareness and dissemination of results

  • Project website, communication materials, Layman’s report, replicability/transferability strategy, signboards
  • Networking with AEWA Lesser White-fronted Goose International Working Group (including workshops to expand Lesser White-fronted Goose climate resilient site network beyond the EU) and the wider international conservation community to ensure transferability and replicability of project results
  • Development and implementation of scheme promoting Lesser White-fronted Goose-friendly business opportunities and ecotourism in the Evros Delta SPA in Greece, as a source of alternative livelihood in the area
  • Implementation of environmental education programme in the Hortobágy area, Hungary
  • Awareness-raising activities targeting local communities and the general public at project sites in Hungary, Greece, Estonia and Lithuania.
Kiljuhanhet seisovat pellolla

SPECIES

The Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus) is a Palearctic goose species, that breeds from northern Fennoscandia to eastern Siberia.

Three populations are identified within the Western Palearctic, two of which constitute surviving components of the natural populations and traditional migration routes of the species, and are the agreed focus for international conservation action:

  • Fennoscandian population, breeding in Norway, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula
  • Western main population, breeding in northern Russia to the west of the Taimyr Peninsula

This project targets the Fennoscandian population. Individuals from both populations occur within the EU, with an increase in wintering birds from the Western main population observed in recent years. The long-term survival of the Fennoscandian population is linked to that of the much larger Western main population which provides vital genetic influx to this small and otherwise isolated population.

Habitat

Lesser White-fronted Geese breed in low arctic tundra and forest-tundra. The exact breeding habitat requirements vary in different parts of the distribution range.

A common denominator for habitat selection in staging and wintering areas appears to be the need for short, often salt tolerant, grass vegetation, typical of floodland habitats. This makes the Lesser White-fronted Goose dependent on natural habitats, whereas practically all other goose species wintering in the EU have adapted to feed on agricultural land.

Read more about the habitat

The wintering grounds of the West-Russian population are only partially known, but include shallow bays, water reservoirs and lakes, and wetland complexes and surrounding cultivated land and semi-natural grasslands.

Distribution and migration

Kiljuhanhien muuttoreitti

Migration routes of the Fennoscandian population of Lesser White-fronted Goose. Spring migration: opaque green line. Autumn migration: opaque orange line. Mid-summer moult-migration of non-breeders: transparent blue line. Autumn migration of non-breeders: transparent orange line.

The Lesser White-fronted Geese depart from the breeding grounds in northern Fennoscandia and Russia in late August to early September and turn back to the breeding areas in late May to early June. The staging and wintering areas and migration routes are only partially known, which is an obstacle in the conservation of the species.

Read more about the distribution

The Fennoscandian population breeds in Finnmark, northern Norway, and some pairs possibly also in Finnish Lapland. The current status of the breeding population in the Russian Kola Peninsula, also part of Fennoscandia, is unknown.

Successful breeders moult on the breeding grounds while their offspring grow up and fledge, and then undertake an autumn migration directly south via Hungary to the wintering areas in Greece.

The wintering sites of the Fennoscandian population are situated in northern Greece: Lake Kerkini just south of the Bulgarian border and the Evros Delta adjacent to the Turkish border. On spring migration, the Fennoscandian birds have regular staging areas in eastern Hungary, in the Nemunas Delta in Lithuania, on the island of Hiiumaa in Estonia, on the Bothnian Bay coast in Finland, and by the Porsangen Fjord in Norway.

The Fennoscandian and West-Russian populations have differing migration routes and wintering grounds, but there is a partial overlap during autumn migration, resulting from moult migration of non-breeding Fennoscandian individuals.  Non-breeders from the Fennoscandian population undertake a moult migration to arctic Russia: failed Fennoscandian breeders migrate eastwards already in the mid-summer, crossing the Ural Mountains, to moult e.g. on the Taimyr Peninsula.

After moult, they start autumn migration southwards, through the Ob river valley to a major autumn staging area in north-west Kazakhstan, and then continue along the north and west coast of the Black Sea to re-join the rest of the population at the wintering grounds in Greece.

The main wintering areas of the West-Russian population remain mostly unknown but are thought to be around the southern parts of the Caspian Sea, and in the wetlands of Azerbaijan, Iran and Iraq (the Mesopotamian Marshes). The most important known wintering site is the Aras water reservoir on the border between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Recent satellite-tagging and monitoring efforts have confirmed the presence of wintering birds in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq and eastern Turkey. Increasing numbers of Lesser White-fronted Geese from the West-Russian population occur regularly during winter within or adjacent to the EU (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Serbia), amongst flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese.

Population

Kiljuhanhien kannan kehitys 2021

Number of Lesser White-fronted Geese in the spring staging area on the Finnish Bothnian Bay coast, 1985-2020. Source: Lesser White-fronted Goose working group of WWF Finland.

The critically endangered Fennoscandian population, targeted by this project, is currently estimated to number only 90-120 individuals, or 30-35 adult breeding pairs. Following a dramatic long-term decline, from a roughly estimated 10,000 individuals in the early 20th century to only 60-80 individuals in 2005, the Fennoscandian population currently seems to be slightly increasing.

Read more about the population

The current estimate of the global Lesser White-fronted Goose population is 42.500-59.100 individuals (unpublished), derived from combining the most recent estimates for the Fennoscandian and West-Russian populations estimated at 28.500-40.100 individuals, and the East-Russian population estimated at 14.000-19.000 individuals.

Although reports from the range indicate that the population decline in the Western Palearctic appears to have levelled off, the overall long-term population trend is not considered to be stable. Although there appears to be an increase in numbers since the previous global estimate of 24.000 to 40.000 individuals, this is thought to be due to better monitoring coverage rather than an actual increase in population size.

Conservation status

The Lesser White-fronted Goose is red listed as globally Vulnerable by IUCN and ranked as a European species of global conservation concern (SPEC 1) by BirdLife International. Within the European Union, the species is classified as Critically Endangered according to the 2015 European Red List Assessment. It is also listed in Annex 1 of the European Council Directive on the conservation of Wild Birds (79/409/EEC 1979, 2009/147/EC 2009), in Column A of the Action Plan under the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), and in Annex II ‘Strictly protected species’ of the Bern Convention.

Identification of the Lesser White-fronted Goose

One of the biggest challenges in the conservation of the Lesser White-fronted Goose is that during migration the Lesser White-fronts (Anser erythropus) are mixing with (Greater) White-fronted Geese (A. albifrons) which is an important quarry species in many countries within the range of the Lesser White-fronted Goose.

Separating the Lesser White-front and the (Greater) White-front – even in adult plumage – is difficult. In a hunting situation, it is practically impossible and therefore the only effective way to protect the Lesser White-fronts from hunting at the few and limited key sites, is to ban hunting of all white-fronted geese in the periods when Lesser White-fronts are present.

Kiljuhanhen erottaminen

Main differences between Lesser and Greater White-fronted Goose in adult plumage. Paintings © Jari Kostet. Source: Lesser White-fronted Goose Field Guide

Main threats

Despite substantial progress made in the conservation of the Lesser White-fronted Goose since the adoption of the AEWA International Single Species Action Plan in 2008, the status of the Fennoscandian population is still critically endangered.

High adult mortality and climate change as well as habitat loss, conversion and degradation have been reconfirmed by the AEWA Lesser White-fronted Goose International Working Group to be the main factors hampering the recovery of the species. In addition, knowledge gaps concerning the species’ distribution and movements still exist, which further continues to hamper the implementation of appropriate conservation measures.

Read more about the threats

Climate change

Climate change is likely to have a significant negative impact on the tundra ecosystem of the breeding grounds of the species. Possible consequences include direct habitat loss as the tree line moves higher up, but also indirect impacts such as the breakdown of food chains with dampening of rodent cycles and the further expansion of the range of predators like the Red Fox which increases predation pressure on ground nesting birds.

Climate change is also likely to have impacts on the staging and wintering areas. For example, increasingly mild winters might mean that geese will winter further north in some years, or that feeding habitats become unavailable in due to drought and regrowth of bushes. Monitoring of the Fennoscandian birds has already shown a significant change in the migratory patterns of the population with a shift in timing of migration as well as changes in site fidelity.

This project will assess the vulnerability of critical Lesser White-fronted Goose sites to climate change and develop adaptation guidance. It will implement activities aimed at identifying potential new sites used by the Fennoscandian population.

Illegal hunting

Although legally protected across its entire range, hunting and accidental shooting is still considered to be the primary cause of direct mortality. Hunting has been estimated to have a critical impact on the species as a whole and is the main threat to the species along the eastern migratory routes of the Lesser White-fronted Goose which lie outside of the EU. Spring hunting of water birds is still legal and widely practiced in Russia, Belarus and some other ex-Soviet or Middle East countries.

One of the main difficulties in the implementation of conservation measures to tackle the threat of hunting arises from the difficulty to distinguish between Lesser White-fronted Goose and the very similar ‘look alike’ species, the (Greater) White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons), which is an important legal quarry species. The two species often migrate and stage together in mixed flocks and when the birds are in flight it may be difficult even for experienced ornithologists to recognise them.

Indirect pressure as a result of hunting includes disturbance caused by hunting for other species which may lead to loss of condition, thereby also contributing to mortality.

Farming and land management practices

The threat from farming and other land management practices leading to habitat loss and degradation are ranked as critical. Abandonment of traditional agricultural land-management practices is a strong trend in many countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and has been a significant factor in parts of Fennoscandia.

Also, over-grazing of tundra vegetation by semi-domestic Reindeer may threaten the quality of breeding habitat for the Fennoscandian population, though impacts appear to vary between areas and countries. Extensive areas of grassland and wetland in the staging and wintering areas have been converted for agricultural use.

Disturbance

Disturbance is ranked as a medium threat for the species. However, human disturbance seems to be increasing, with expected negative consequences for the birds as favoured areas becomes inaccessible. Such disturbance may lead to loss of condition and increased adult mortality, with birds less fit to survive winter or the rigors of distance migration as well as to decreased reproduction success.

Windfarm development on the Baltic Sea coast

Windfarms affect birds through collision and disturbance displacement, which can lead to increased direct mortality as well as preventing access to feeding areas. The Lesser White-fronted Goose migrates along the coastal areas of the Baltic Sea and are therefore increasingly at risk from expanding windfarm developments.

Gaps in knowledge

Current knowledge of the Lesser White-fronted Goose is limited in several areas that may have crucial relevance for the successful implementation of comprehensive conservation measures. The project includes various actions across the project area to locate additional key sites used by the species, including increasing on-the-ground monitoring capacity by training people in new areas/countries as well as a study to assess the impact of climate change on key sites.

PUBLICATIONS

The publications, articles and other outreach of the project will be made available on this section.

PROJECT TEAM

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Previous Lesser White-fronted Goose LIFE project

You can access the webpage of the previous Lesser White-fronted Goose LIFE project here.

This website reflects only the project view and does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the EISMEA nor the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.