Future of rare white-backed woodpecker precarious

Vitryggig hackspett fotad i Västerbotten.
Vitryggig hackspett fotad i Västerbotten.

The population of one of Sweden's most endangered bird species, the white-backed woodpecker, continues to increase in the northern part of the country. "Of the eleven nesting sites in the country, seven are in Västerbotten," says Malin König from Länsstyrelsen Västerbotten. But now there has been a reduction in support, and rescue efforts are in jeopardy.

Västerbotten 6 oktober 2023 16:00

In the late 20th century, the population of the white-backed woodpecker plummeted. In 2000, there were only five pairs in the whole country.

– But now it's on the rise, with more and more nests, says Malin König of nature conservation unit, Länsstyrelsen Västerbotten.

The sharp decline was due to the disappearance of much of the woodpecker's habitat as a result of modern forestry practices. The focus moved on to pure coniferous forests, whereas the white-backed woodpecker needs light, contiguous deciduous forests with many older, dead deciduous trees.

When the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency's (Naturvårdsenheten) action program was launched in 2017, Länsstyrelsen Västerbotten began working with the municipalities of Skellefteå and Umeå, as well as Holmen Skog, SCA and Sveaskog.

– It has yielded results. In the last three years, there have been four nests in 2021, five in 2022, and seven this year, says König.

– We have focused on creating habitats for the white-backed woodpecker both inside and outside nature reserves, in close cooperation with forestry companies.

Large-scale deciduous forest restorations have been carried out, with spruce being cut down to create suitable environments for the birds. It is confidential where the white-backed woodpeckers nest, but two areas in Skellefteå municipality have been targeted.

– We are giving the birds a chance to establish themselves in the municipality, says Johanna Engström, municipal biologist in Skellefteå.

On municipal land, measures have been taken along the Skellefte River, both at Bjurån and in the inner and outer bays at Gunsen.

– We have cleared away spruce to make the deciduous trees more prominent.

– The white-backed woodpecker is a cautious bird, and it's really great that the number of breeding pairs has been growing steadily, says Engström.

Now, the government is cutting funding for biodiversity conservation, and Länsstyrelsen will no longer be able to afford to restore broadleaf forests in nature reserves or maintain the restored areas.

– The budget has almost been halved. It has decreased by 42 percent and could decrease even more. It will be tough to prioritize when we have to maintain paths, care for boardwalks, and carry out measures for biological reasons," says König.

The work in Skellefteå municipality could also come to a halt.

– We don't have any special funds for this; we are looking for funding for targeted measures. In Bjurån, for example, we could get subsidies through the rural development program, says Engström.

White-backed woodpecker

The white-backed woodpecker is an important bird. It is a so-called umbrella species. About 200 other animal and plant species depend on the same forest environments as the woodpecker.

The fact that the white-backed woodpecker is nearly extinct indicates that many more species are threatened. Just as it is positive that the woodpecker is returning and nesting in restored hardwood forests, many other species are benefiting as well.

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