For the first time in over a decade, nature conservation bodies are today [Tuesday 6 January 2009] calling on birdwatchers, walkers, anglers and water sports enthusiasts across Britain to minimise disturbance to groups of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds. On lakes, rivers, wetlands, and coastal areas the birds will be struggling to survive after enduring seven consecutive days of freezing temperatures.

The group making today's call include the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and Natural England.

Following a run of mild winters, this is the first time in a decade that this call has been made in England. An appeal in Scotland was issued in 2003.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, said: "During freezing conditions disturbance forces the birds to squander their precious energy reserves by taking flight when they need to spend as much time as possible feeding.

"Although we haven't made this appeal since 1997, we hope everyone who uses the countryside will heed our advice, allowing the millions of birds which visit the UK's coasts and wetlands during the winter to stand a better chance of survival."

If the severe weather continues for 14 days in succession, the shooting of some species of duck, geese, and wading bird can be suspended for a fortnight to help the birds recover. The last time such a ban was imposed was in 1997.

The birds affected include ducks - including wigeon and pintail - and wading birds, such as godwits, dunlin and knot. These birds either nest in the Arctic, or further north or east in Europe. During the winter the birds visit the UK to escape harsher conditions further north.

Dr Andre Farrar, the RSPB's protected area campaigner, said: "Even at a time when our climate is warming, we can still expect freezing conditions, but less frequently. Wildfowl and wading birds respond to these icy blasts by moving further south and west. Mild winters have allowed some of these international travellers to cut short
their journeys, with more remaining within the eastern half of Britain.

"As the natural world responds to the freeze, we can expect the UK's vital coastal wetlands to play a role in helping these hardy birds survive the winter. If the freeze continues, we can expect the warmer estuaries on our west coast - such as the Severn, Dee, Mersey, Ribble, Morecambe Bay and the Solway - to be especially important as birds escape the weather. These are amongst our most important wildlife sites. The winter of 2009 is likely to show just how vital they are to the survival of thousands of water birds."

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