Far out to sea, hardy breeds of ducks are battling the elements and a catastrophic decline that could threaten their future. Liam Creedon reports.
The fact that some ducks live far out to sea may come as a shock to many. We tend to associate these birds with the ceremonial feeding of stale bread in the local park, or riotous quacking ricocheting across a winter marsh, or, more guiltily perhaps, with the delights of crispy duck pancakes in a Chinese restaurant.
But there is a hardy group of super ducks that has set up home amid the pounding grey surf and screaming winds. One is the eider duck – from whose soft breast (of the female) we have plundered feathers to fill our duvets from time immemorial.
The eider is quite well known but other sea ducks, such as the common and velvet scoter, scaup, long-tailed duck and red-breasted merganser, are still relatively mysterious.
And these super ducks, it has been discovered, are in serious trouble.
Sea ducks are best seen around UK coasts during the winter when they move south from their freezing northern breeding grounds. It was assumed that the ducks, left to their own devices, were doing all right, but a recent report revealed a shocking problem. The ducks were vanishing. Massively reduced numbers were appearing at key European wintering grounds in the Baltic Sea. It had been thought the birds may have shifted to new sites as a result of climate change but this has proved a false hope.
Two species have been particularly badly hit – the long-tailed duck, which flaunts a jet-black knitting needle-like tail, and the velvet scoter. Some 60% of long-tailed ducks, amounting to around 1.8 million birds, have been lost.
The situation is even worse for the velvet scoter, a soot-coloured heavyset duck with a striking white eye-patch, which is believed to have slumped by 65%.
The Moray Firth is the key UK site for the two ducks and the latest data suggests their declines could be even greater there than in the Baltic Sea.
The slump is so bad that both have been added to the IUCN Red List – the database of species at risk of extinction. The news is not much better for the other sea ducks. Dramatic declines ranging from 42%-51% were also found for the eider, common scoter and red-breasted merganser.
But keeping us warm at night is just one of the eider's many talents. Whisper it, but eiders may be responsible for the birth of the environmental movement. St Cuthbert, a 7th century missionary living on the remote Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast, was so taken with them he put in place rules to protect them during the breeding season.
Mark Simpson, spokesman at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), explains: "There is little knowledge about what's behind these declines. They could be due to reductions in nutrient loads, increases in predation rates, small but regular oil spills and leakages, or by-catch in fishing nets.
"What is clear is that a number of potential threats exist, and most are increasing as use of the marine environment increases. These birds are still poorly understood, in terms of population structure, habitat requirements and general ecology, because they are physically difficult to study out at sea."
The WWT is now leading the response to help our stricken sea ducks. Mr Simpson says: "Because this needs tackling throughout northern Europe, we lobbied the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement to make sea ducks a priority.
"As a result, we're expecting a plan of action specifically for the long-tailed duck. These are all vital steps to get the international support and co-operation needed to conserve species that freely migrate between countries."
For further information on seaducks, visit www.wwt.org.uk/waterlife