On the Avalon Marshes, in Somerset, one of our most dramatic natural spectacles takes place every winter evening from November to February. Up to half a million starlings—refugees from the far north and east—converge on this location at dusk to roost in the reedbeds below.

This has become quite popular with tourists in recent years. Murmurations, in which a large number of starlings twist and turn in opposition to the setting sun, attract hundreds of people on busy weekend afternoons.

However, if you talk to birders who have lived in the area for a long time, you will quickly realise that this impressive display is only a shadow of what it once was. At least two million starlings cast a shadow over Somerset each evening when they flew overhead twenty or more years ago. Numbers have decreased by at least 75% since then; possibly even more.

We have tended to concentrate on the spring and summer visitors when discussing the declines in migrant birds. In recent years, many of these, including swifts, swallows, warblers, and flycatchers, have experienced significant population declines. However, another group of birds about which we ought to be concerned is our winter visitors. Each year, a large number of these come to Britain from further north and east to take advantage of our relatively mild winters, ice-free waterways, and dependable food supplies.

Wildfowl, which includes ducks, geese, and swans, are the most common wintering species here. Many come from places like Canada, Greenland, Spitzbergen, and Siberia, as well as Iceland and Scandinavia, which are closer to home.

The headquarters of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, has been home to hundreds of Bewick’s swans every winter since the second world war. These swans come here after breeding on the Siberian tundra. Peter Scott, a well-known conservationist, and his adolescent daughter Dafila discovered shortly after these graceful birds first arrived at Slimbridge that each individual swan could be identified by the distinctive pattern of yellow and black on their bills. This made it possible to accurately estimate the number of swans spending the winter there.

610 distinct Bewick’s swan species were counted at Slimbridge on a single day during the harsh winter of 1978-1979, with over 700 species recorded throughout the winter. However, there were only about fifty swans present.

After a string of poor breeding years brought on by warmer summers in the Arctic, winter numbers in Britain as a whole have decreased by more than 70% in less than a decade. Dr. Julia Newth of the WWT says, “this decline in Bewick’s swan numbers is deeply concerning. Watching the annual ‘swanfall’, where hundreds of wild Bewick’s swans arrive in swirling flocks, is one of winter’s natural spectacles. It is tragic that we risk losing this”.

We also welcome large flocks of geese, including the larger whooper swan and the Bewick’s swan. Indeed, the UK is home to roughly 90% of the worldwide population of a single species, the pink-footed goose. One of the few species that defies the trend, with numbers actually rising, is this species; However, the wintering flock of 400 bean geese in south Norfolk has decreased to just a few hundred birds since 1990.

Ducks are also becoming increasingly scarce. A flock of nearly 150 smew gathered at Brent Reservoir in north London during the winter of 1956; It would be a miracle if you saw one in the capital today. The goldeneye, another striking black-and-white duck found in Somerset, has virtually disappeared; having experienced rapid decline since my arrival here less than two decades ago.

Numerous smaller species are also experiencing a decline in numbers. Winter visitors like the great grey shrike, shore lark, and Lapland bunting are now much rarer than 50 years ago. Other annual spectacles, such as the enormous starling roosts that once graced Bristol’s Temple Meads railway station and Leicester Square in London, have also long since vanished from our cities.

These decreases are primarily due to two factors: both had something to do with the climate crisis. One is that many species, including Bewick’s swans and starlings, are experiencing rapid declines in their populations. This is due to a number of things, including the effects of a rapidly warming climate on food supplies and the loss of habitat.

Our summer visitors are also impacted by these issues. However, only these wintering birds are affected by another factor, referred to as “short-stopping.” Scientists discovered short-stopping almost a decade ago. It is the direct result of a rapid rise in winter temperatures across northern Europe. So, instead of crossing the North Sea, many birds that would have spent the winter in Britain now stay put somewhere along their migration route. However, staying put comes with some risks: A sudden and unanticipated cold snap can result in high mortality, particularly among young birds with limited experience.

Meanwhile, our most well-known summer visitor, the swallow, has begun to winter in south-west Britain in recent years in small numbers. As if we needed any more evidence, this is yet another indication that the climate crisis is profoundly altering the range, status, and behaviour of numerous of our most familiar birds.


At Natural World Fund, we are passionate about stopping the decline in our wildlife.

The declines in our wildlife is shocking and frightening. Without much more support, many of the animals we know and love will continue in their declines towards extinction.

When you help to restore a patch of degraded land through rewilding to forests, meadows, or wetlands, you have a massive impact on the biodiversity at a local level. You give animals a home and food that they otherwise would not have had, and it has a positive snowball effect for the food chain.

We are convinced that this is much better for the UK than growing lots of fast-growing coniferous trees, solely to remove carbon, that don’t actually help our animals to thrive.

This is why we stand for restoring nature in the UK through responsible rewilding. For us, it is the right thing to do. Let’s do what’s right for nature!

Support our work today at https://naturalworldfund.com/ and join in the solution!

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