This paper, from GWCT scientists and the Woodcock Network, is a fascinating insight into Woodcock behaviour and is another example of the great value of satellite telemetry in moving on our understanding of bird movements by leaps and bounds.
There is a declining UK breeding population of Woodcocks which in winter is greatly augmented by immigrants from continental Europe.
This study showed that many wintering Woodcocks satellite tagged in Britain and Ireland in February and March return to breeding areas in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Poland and Belarus (39%), west and northwest Russia (54%) with 8% of them heading into Siberia and breeding over 6000km from their wintering sites; that’s east of Kazakhstan and closer to Beijing than to Moscow. Wow! Aren’t birds amazing?
This study suggests that Woodcocks are faithful to their breeding, and their wintering sites. When those birds come back to the same damp fields in the UK they are quarry species with the Woodcock season opening on 1 September in Scotland and 1 October elsewhere in the UK and the Isle of Man.
The continental birds arrive mostly during October and November, meaning that Woodcock shooting in September and much of October is primarily directed at the declining British and Irish breeding population. This paper repeats the recommendation from GWCT not to shoot Woodcock until 1 December and suggests that this practice has been widely adopted. In the absence of proper regulation of shooting in the UK, and the absence of any requirement to submit bag records, it is difficult to know whether or not to accept this as true or not. How would we know? How would GWCT know? It requires shooters to lop 2-3 months off the shooting season that the law allows. Given the non-compliance of the shooting community with laws on use of lead ammunition for shooting wildfowl and the protected status of birds of prey, and further non-compliance with voluntarily-made agreements not to burn blanket bogs, there is reason to doubt how well respected this restraint might be. Added to which five minutes search provided adverts for Woodcock shooting in Somerset from at least November, Devon from 1 October, Raasay, Scotland from 1 November, Kintyre, from 1 October, Cambusmore, Scotland from 1 October and many more. As an example of efficient self-regulation, I’m sceptical.
This paper makes a fascinating read, and will do something to bolster the GWCT’s flagging reputation for science, but if the findings are trumpeted by the shooting industry and then ignored…?
Of course, some might not be terribly keen on the idea of shooting birds that have travelled over 6000km to visit us at any time of year.
In 2016 Chris Packham called for a moratorium on shooting of Woodcock, Snipe and Golden Plover, but this was turned down by DEFRA – maybe it’s time to call for a change in the Woodcock shooting season in line with GWCT recommendations?