The Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis) is the smallest wild goose in Europe and Asia. Its body reaches up to 56 cm (1.8 ft.) in length, and its wingspan is no wider than 135 cm (4.4 ft.). This beautiful bird is Bulgaria’s only bright-coloured goose. Nearly the whole global population of the species – about 50 000 individuals – spends the winter in the Dobrudja region (in north-eastern Bulgaria and south-eastern Romania) and can be observed there from November till March. In October – November it can also be seen in the lowlands of Svishtov and Belene. In extremely cold weather some flocks can fly as far south as the Burgas Lakes or to inland water bodies too.
The Red-breasted Goose nests only in the tundra of the Taymyr, Yamal and Gydan Peninsulas in Russia, north of the 70° latitude. Up to the end of the 1970s the species spent the winter by the shores of the Caspian Sea. After local farmers switched from growing winter cereals to cotton, however, the birds changed their wintering grounds and now the entire global population winters in Bulgaria, Romania and – partially – Ukraine. The Red-breasted Geese fly over about 6 000 km (3700 mi.) on their way to the western coast of the Black Sea; their route runs along the Ob River Valley and by the Ural Mountain in northern Kazakhstan and southern Russia.
In the main wintering grounds in Bulgaria and Romania the geese feed on agricultural lands sown with winter cereals and on corn stubble fields. The birds regularly visit the coastal lakes – not more than 50 km (31 mi.) away from their feeding grounds – to drink water. In Bulgaria the Red-breasted Geese spend the night in the water, usually towards the center of the lakes; in periods of high hunting pressure and in calm weather they also roost in the sea. If the lakes freeze, the birds roost on the ice.
The geese nest in the tundra of north-eastern Siberia; there they often become prey of predators – mostly Arctic fox. In September the geese embark on a long, dangerous south-westwards journey; along its route they face diverse dangers – hunters, disturbance at their feeding and resting sites etc.
In winter the Red-breasted Geese flocks mix with those of the White-fronted Geese and are often shot by mistake as the latter are considered game in Bulgaria.
The survival of the species in winter depends on the conditions in its feeding and resting sites – if the birds are disturbed, they spend a lot of energy flying away and can be exhausted. Having to constantly move away, they are unable to store the fat reserves that they need to survive the long flight back to Siberia.
Any radical changes in the agricultural practices on the wintering territories of the Red-breasted Goose could result in a new change in its winter grounds. Therefore it is crucial to manage agriculture in Dobruja in a stable manner, considering geese as well as humans.
In recent years a new threat emerged for the species in connection with the growing interest in infrastructure projects in the region, such as wind parks, touristic sites etc. The ensuing infrastructural changes would lead to a significant reduction of the area of suitable habitats which the geese use for feeding and resting.
The lack of understanding and empathy with the problems of this protected species and its habitats could intensify the effect of the aforementioned threats.
The BSPB has been carrying out research and conservation activities aimed at the Red-breasted Goose for almost twenty years. In 2010 we launched a project for the species, funded by the LIFE+ Programme of the European Union – Conservation of the Wintering Population of the Globally Threatened Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis) in Bulgaria. The project is realized in partnership with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (BirdLife, UK), the Hunting and Fishing Association in Shabla and the agricultural cooperative Kirilovi Ltd.
The main objectives for the project team comply with long-term efforts of the BSPB to reduce the direct disturbance of the Red-breasted Geese. We aim to reduce the level of disturbance in key areas for the Red-breasted Geese through extensive information campaigns and regulations for the fishermen’s access to the relevant water bodies, including by clearing off new fishing sites in the reedbeds.
Significant research on the ecology of the species will be carried out during the project: the preferred feeding habitats of the geese, the impact of wind parks on their behaviour and their distribution in coastal Dobruja etc. The analysis of the data gathered will be used to develop a habitat model for the species and a map of sensitive areas which will supplement decision making with regards to investment plans.
A national action plan for the species will be developed within the project; it will determine the main priorities and the most important activities for the conservation of the species in Bulgaria.
The monitoring of the species will be facilitated by state-of-the-art technology which makes possible the remote tracking of the birds via GPS and satellite transmitters. This will help our team create a map of sensitive areas and develop relevant measures for the conservation of the species in the future.
A significant achievement of the project is the development and testing of agroecological schemes for stimulation of agricultural farmers who wish to make supportive efforts for the wintering geese. Providing safer feeding conditions for the Red-breasted Geese is an important prerequisite for the success of the project. As almost the entire population of the species regularly spends the winter in this part of Bulgaria, the project would contribute to the better chances of survival of the species on a global level.
Communication and education activities include a number of information campaigns among farmers, hunters, fishermen and other interested parties, work with local schools, leaflet publication, information boards etc. One of the best-loved attractions, however, is the annual Kite Festival in Shabla which advertises the region as a destination for sustainable, responsible tourism; the festival has already become a much-anticipated tradition and a colourful event celebrating Red-breasted Geese, wheat and the people of coastal Dobruja.