The western Palaearctic continental flyway that connects the tundra and taiga belts of Russia with north-west Europe is the major migratory avenue for an estimated 9.3 million herbivorous water birds (swans, geese and ducks). Agricultural practices together with protection measures subsidize the carrying capacity of winter habitats of the birds. Densities of these birds are highest in the Netherlands, where nitrogen (N) inputs to farmland have increased during the last 70 years and became the highest in Europe (>250 kg manure and fertilizer ha−1 yr−1). A comparison of population trends of 13 species of avian herbivores reveals generally expanding populations in the past 50 years, with the greatest increases from 1970 to 1990. Populations of the smallest avian herbivores, such as ducks, are either stable or have peaked and are now in decline, whereas numbers of larger herbivores (geese and swans) continue to increase and barnacle and greylag geese now breed in the Netherlands, in addition to northern sites.
During the northerly spring migration, stop-over sites, mostly in the agricultural regions of eastern Europe and Scandinavia, lie between the 3 and 6°C mean daily temperature isotherms in April, temperatures at which grasses start to grow, where flooding of riparian wetlands frequently occurs and fertilizers are applied to farmland. However, the restructuring of agricultural practices in an enlarged EU is likely to affect water bird populations and their migration routes. The reduced use of N in the Netherlands is predicted to constrain population growth, especially of the smallest avian herbivores with their high basal metabolic rates, because of the declining food quality of grass leaves. The introduction of large-scale farming of oilseed rape, winter cereals, sugar beet and potatoes at the expense of grassland also will adversely affect these birds, whereas larger species are likely to continue exploiting these crops.