Arguably Strangford Lough's most important species

Strangford Lough in County Down is renowned for its abundance of wildlife. Every October bird watchers flock to its shoreline to witness the ‘coming home’ of thousands of Brent Geese, that return here for the temperate climate and plentiful food supply.
Tranquil Strangford Lough with its 70 small islands ('drumlins') and wealth of tidal rocky outcrops ('pladdies'), is the largest sea Lough in the British Isles and a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI).
Every year the entire population of Canadian Light-bellied Brent Geese embark on an amazing journey to Strangford Lough.
Geese in Flight, by Johan Oli Hilmarsson/WWTIt is estimated some 25 thousand Brent geese make the eight thousand kilometer journey from the Canadian Artic every year. The birds fly at over 2,800 metres, about a mile and a half above the surface at 30-50 mph.
It can take the geese about six weeks to arrive on the Lough, including a stop over in Iceland where they fatten up and rest. They need a lot of excess fat because they loose two thirds of their body weight when they fly over Greenland, in the space of a few days. The birds leave our shores in March and April and arrive in the Arctic in mid-July.
They come here to feed on a plant called Eel Grass which grows really well in the sea water around our muddy coastline. Scientists call this Zostera. When the Eel Grass runs out they eat a plant called Entromophora which is a green seaweed or Gut Weed.
The 8,000km journey can be hazardous and the birds face strong gales which can blow them of course. This is especially difficult for young birds who are vulnerable, relatively weak and inexperienced. Because of the dangers faced by the Brents, the governments of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the UK and Ireland all share a responsibility to protect the birds that visit their countries each year.
The population of birds is ringed each year, enabling the study of individual birds and their behaviour. This helps scientists to determine where the birds spend the winter and what their lifespan is likely to be, and the information is vital to protect this species effectively.
The migration of the geese to Strangford Lough is so important that Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust has embarked on a further study, to learn more about the birds’ migratory path.
Beginning in late May 2005 and running through to the autumn, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) in collaboration with the Icelandic Institute of Natural History (IINH) and Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) aim to reveal some of the mysteries of this migration through a major collaboration with BBC NI. Six transmitters were attached to male geese, Homer, Gaysir, Resolute, Lagan, Espie, Myrar, when they were caught in Iceland.
The transmitters send a signal every 60 seconds to a satellite orbiting the planet. The satellite tracks the migratory path of the birds, letting the Wildfowl & Wetlands trust know exactly where they are, at any given time.
Each year, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, release advice for residents in and around Strangford Lough, on how to respect the geese when they are here. Residents are advised: “Adults must not allow things to be built on mudflats where the geese get their food. We must not disturb the geese in the winter when they are feeding. We must not drop our litter but take it home and keep an eye out for any illegal dumping, pollution or shooting and tell an adult who can inform the authorities. But most of all we can go out and watch the geese and enjoy them because when we do that we will want to look after them and the places where they live during their winter visit.”
Geese in Flight, by Johan Oli Hilmarsson/WWTIn the springtime the Brent start to leave the temperate climate of Strangford Lough to begin their migration back to the Canadian Arctic. They leave our shores and head northwest for Iceland where they take a well deserved rest, before setting off to the northwest again over the Greenland icecap to the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Arctic. This is a journey of around two and a half thousand miles (four thousand kilometers). So their total journey there and back is a staggering five thousand miles (eight thousand kilometers).
Their route takes them to remote and hazardous regions, especially in Greenland and Canada and the Wildfowl & Wetlands trust believe the satellite tracking technology is vital in understanding more about the behaviour habits of these ‘supergeese.’
The Light Bellied Brent geese are arguably Strangford’s most important species but they are not the only birds that migrate to the Lough in the winter months. Others include, Whooper swans and Black tailed Godwit from Iceland, Dunlin from Western Europe, Wigeon from north West Europe, Green shank from Europe, Knot from Canada and Greenland, Shelduck from North West Europe, Golden plover from Iceland, Bar-tailed Godwit from Northern Europe/Russia, even Little Egrets arrive to Strangford Lough from Cork and many more.
If you are interested in finding out more about the ‘supergoose’ project and all the exciting things that happened to the six intrepid geese then go to the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust website.
By Catherine Lynagh
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation