An independent, non-commercial site to collect and disseminate information on the natural history of Shetland

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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Shetland Biological Records Centre



The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) - counting for conservation

With more than 3 million waterfowl wintering on the UK’s wetlands each year, and even more passing through on migration, Britain has a major international responsibility to conserve these birds.  Whether this is achieved through, for example, protection of important sites, or through research into specific problems, conservation requires baseline information.  In the UK, the majority of this information is gathered through WeBS - the Wetland Bird Survey.

Monitoring of waterbird populations (i.e. divers, grebes, swans, geese, ducks and waders) has been carried out in one form or another for over 50 years.  Back in 1947, the British section of the International Wildfowl Inquiry initiated wildfowl counts "to determine the status of wildfowl in Great Britain and to ascertain whether any long term trends were occurring" - still among the scheme’s key objectives today.  These later became more widespread, and organisation of these National Wildfowl Counts moved to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge (WWT).  Since that time the scheme has continued to grow, and in 1993 merged with the Birds of Estuaries Enquiry, established in 1969 to extend coverage to waders, to form the Wetland Bird Survey.

The scheme, a partnership between the British Trust for Ornithology, WWT, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the government's umbrella conservation body for each of the country conservation agencies) has four main objectives:

  • to obtain waterfowl population estimates

  • to monitor trends in these populations

  • to identify important sites

  • to research into waterfowl ecology

Counts are carried out solely by volunteers, who give their time to visit local wetlands and count the waterfowl that they see.  Nationally, around 2000-2500 sites are covered by the survey every year, making it arguably the largest scheme of its kind in Europe.

In Shetland, the emphasis of these counts has been on wildfowl, since the islands can muster very little in the way of estuarine habitats.  The first count listed on the WeBS database is from Papil Water in Fetlar, in September 1960.  Since then, over 6000 records have been collected for sites throughout Shetland.  Whilst the bulk of records come from the main wildfowl sites (such as the lochs at Tingwall & Asta, Spiggie & Brow and Clickimin), there are records for a variety of smaller sites as well.

Shetland Biological Records Centre organises the WeBS counts within Shetland, acting as a link between the national administration of the scheme, and local counters on the ground.  As such, we are keen to hear from anyone who might be able to provide counts for their local loch or other area (data from voes or sea inlets form an equally useful contribution to the survey).  The demands of the survey on counters are not too onerous.  One count per month is required from the seven ‘winter’ months (September – March); preferably on a set weekend (usually the middle of the month), although if weather or other commitments do not permit, any count from a single day during the month in question will be taken.  All counters need to do is fill in a simple form, and send it in at the end of the season.  In return for their efforts counters receive a twice-yearly newsletter, which is a well-written mix of news and views about waterfowl species, census work, conservation etc.; and a copy of the WeBS annual report, an impressive tome which summarises the year’s survey.

This really is a survey which ANYONE can make a useful contribution to.  If you think you would like to be involved, or would simply like to find out more, contact contact SHETLAND BIOLOGICAL RECORDS CENTRE at

Photo above - American Wigeon - Steve Votier


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