The Woodcock’s world

British Birds 113 May 2020

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.

Roding Woodcock. Photo: Tim Melling

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?

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12 Replies to “The Woodcock’s world”

  1. So if all the good guys already follow the voluntary restrictions, what is GWCTs position (based on their own hard won data) on making it statutory? All that would do is ensure compliance by the small proportion of shooters not already following the guidance. If they don’t push for change then that speaks volumes about the real extent of shooting early in the season. It’s a great piece of work though and a great write up in British Birds.

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  2. All you say Mark is so right. One cannot believe a word the shooters say in my opinion. Besides the shooters the other real disgrace in all of this is DEFRA for allowing woodcock and many other wild birds that are declining in numbers to be shoot. Really the whole situation is monstrous but then DEFRA is, in many ways, still locked into the Victorian age and its antediluvian stance.
    For God’s sake these birds and many like them need our help. Instead we shoot them. What a rotten society we are creating.

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  3. I always find it amazing that satellite tags can be carried thousands of miles on the back of small birds like Woodcock and cuckoos. But put then on an eagle or a hen harrier and you have a 70%+ “failure” rate. Might I suggest that the GWCT commission research into this phenomenon.

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  4. I the sad old days when I shot( for the pot) I never shot Woodcock and know a number of serious shooters who no longer shoot them either. However I suspect they are a minority and most Woodcock are shot during Pheasant drives. We expect them to follow GWCT advice on this, really I would suspect in most cases no chance. The season should be modified or better still they should not be allowed to be shot at all, despite the claims of it is the best to eat of all game. I suspect this last claim is in part a claim based on exclusivity.

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    1. I feel the same, and I know of some shooters who feel the same. No idea about the proportions though. I hear that one North York Moors estate with both pheasant and grouse shooting specifically does not allow shooting of woodcock, and I know of a small syndicate shoot on the edge of the NYMs which put a stop to it, but it does continue on some shoots.

      This thing with only shooting once the migrant birds arrive never made sense to me. You may be more likely to shoot a migrant bird but you'll likely still be killing resident birds as well. So you're not supposed to shoot in early autumn, which basically concedes the argument that shooting resident birds is damaging, but then goes on to say it's fine in December. Do resident birds suddenly become invincible to shotguns then? Surely if you accept not shooting them in autumn, you shouldn't be shooting them later on either?

      The likes of BASC should be making statements to not shoot woodcock at all until resident numbers recover. Like the situation with black grouse which are technically still on the quarry list I think but not shot anywhere that I know of.

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      1. Thanks for explaining Mark. I've never been into shooting so I didn't quite understand and I had never thought of it before.

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  5. I'm not totally convinced about how big a step forward it is to concentrate shooting effort on woodcock from the continent.
    I know people who disparage the feeding of small birds in winter because many of them may be visitors from overseas. Surely we should just do our best to help (or at least not deliberately kill) all native species that spend time here.

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  6. And what about the Woodcock Club dinners. Read the qualifications for membership. Sick.
    https://www.shootinguk.co.uk/popular-reads/about-the-shooting-times-woodcock-club-and-seeland-9136

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  7. There are certainly some owners of sporting estates who are very fond of their woodcocks and don't allow them to be shot. A friend of mine, fairly new to shooting, was a guest on a driven shoot where they were firmly briefed at the outset that no woodcock were to be shot. He was very grateful to the keeper standing next to him on one drive: "Not that one Sir!"

    Btw, people should not tar all shooters with the same brush, as some commenters here are apt to do.

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  8. Locally, Woodcock are no longer permitted on a number of driven Pheasant shoots, i think it ought to be the case everywhere now.
    There should be enough shooting on a well run day to satisfy any gun, in these circumstances a woodcock just becomes another target, a victim of the hype built up around this bird.
    When lifelong shooters have expressed surprise to me that woodcock only lay four eggs ( unlike
    other "gamebirds"), or that they actually migrate to this country, it reduces the bird to something they can shoot , simply because it is on the quarry list.
    I dislike intensely the idea that anybody is making money from shooting migratory waders, certainly not by selling driven days, but generally have no argument with a rough shooter obtaining a meal by the sweat of his brow.
    It is still not fully understood , what possible damage is being done to site faithful , local breeding groups, by intensified, commercial shooting in the west, but if they are 6000 km away,
    who cares ?.
    I was a regular visitor to, i believe, the first major Woodcock study carried out by the then
    Game Conservancy, at Whitwell Wood, in Derbyshire, which Andrew Hoodless later headed up.
    This was , in the main, funded by German hunting organisations, hoping to prove that the continental sport of shooting roding male woodcock, into the spring months, was not affecting
    breeding populations. Generally, in moderation, it wasn't.
    A never to be forgotten time for those still here to remember.
    R.I.P Whitwell Wood natural history group.

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