Woodcock Conservation on the Shoot

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Written by Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education

The cry “Woodcock” gets everyone on the shoot excited, and no wonder, we are all fascinated by this elusive and enigmatic bird. We may consider it a game bird, but really it is a wader, more closely allied to curlew, lapwing and redshank, than to the likes of pheasant and black grouse. That wonderful cryptic camouflage plumage sets it apart too, and is no accident; it indicates a very palatable bird. The better the camouflage, the better the meat is a general principle, and woodcock are no exception

It is well known now that home breeding woodcock are in decline, with both range contraction and a fall in numbers. Needless to say, this has resulted in calls for a ban on shooting from our detractors. Before we examine whether such a ban is justified, lets discuss a bit of what we know about them.

The first and most important thing to realise is that most of the woodcock seen on shoots in winter are migrants from the north and east, coming to us to find frost-free ground where they can probe for worms. While there are annual fluctuations, there is no indication of a decline in wintering numbers.

Where woodcock come from

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has a long history of pioneering research on woodcock populations and migration. Good old-fashioned bird ringing studies mean that we have long known that many of our wintering birds come from Scandinavia and Russia, but more recent innovations have added extensively to that knowledge. We now know, from stable isotope analysis of the hydrogen in woodcock feathers, that most of the woodcock wintering in Scotland come from areas further north than those in Wales, for example.

However, the real, if more expensive revolution in knowledge comes from catching woodcock and fitting satellite trackers which give us real time data on movements, without the need to ever catch the bird again. This has revealed some truly remarkable migration stories showing that some birds breed so far east in Russia, that they would have a shorter migration if they wintered in Japan rather than here.

Why the decline?

So what is causing a decline among our breeding woodcock here in the UK? Well, there are lots of possible causes, but there is no evidence that shooting is a problem. Our woods are ever changing, and woodcock need a combination of patches of fairly open woodland for nesting, with nearby thicker cover in which to forage and raise their broods. They were pretty much unknown as a UK breeder two centuries ago, and planting of pheasant coverts in Victorian times may have helped them colonise. Then through the twentieth century, woodland and forestry planting produced extensive areas of good breeding habitat in the form of thicket-stage woodland up to the 1970s, and that is about when our home breeding population seems to have peaked. Since then, as the forests have matured, so many have passed their best as woodcock habitat.

Predation pressure may well have risen too, and we know that despite our best efforts there are more foxes and crows than there used to be. Throw in a growing population of badgers which would be only too happy to gobble up woodcock eggs, and you begin to see another plausible factor in the decline. It may well be that climate change is significant too; perhaps drier summers make the spiders and other invertebrates that chicks eat scarcer?

Helping home-bred woodcock

Unlike pheasants and partridges, you cannot help woodcock breed successfully by feeding them. However, there are things that you can do to make their environment better. Woodcock usually choose to nest in fairly open floored woodland, with just a little overhead cover, typically siting their nests at the base of trees, under a fallen branch or sprig of bramble. Once they hatch, they tend to move off into areas with a denser understory, where the chicks feed on various invertebrates including increasing numbers of worms from about 10 days old.

So, promoting diversity in woodland structure is likely to help. Wide rides are good for courtship displays. Where the canopy is dense and there is little undergrowth thinning should promote a little more ground cover, and thus improve nesting opportunities. Creating clearings to either naturally regenerate, or replanting them should result in better thickets as foraging areas for broods. Fortuitously, this is all pretty much in accord with good management for pheasants and wintering woodcock too, and is likely to benefit a range of other woodland wildlife including songbirds and butterflies.

If you see male woodcock going about their roding display flights at dusk in spring and summer, it’s a good bet that you have breeding females, and just like other ground nesting birds they will be vulnerable to predation. Stepping up the fox and crow control programme could well make a big difference to breeding success.

Woodcock in Winter

Once winter comes woodcock take to feeding out in the fields in a big way, and the basic daily routine is to flight out at dusk in search of earthworms, returning to the wood at dawn, where the day is usually spent resting rather than feeding. The birds like to be able to drop down through a gap in the canopy, and then walk off into cover for the day, often choosing to hide under evergreens like holly bushes or young conifers.

Whether it is practical to do anything to improve feeding opportunities I do not really know. That said, my old mate Eric Roderick from south-west Wales does a bit of night lamping for rabbits, and he says that he sees the greatest densities of feeding woodcock on dairy farms with permanent pastures that are dressed with slurry, although they probably avoid them when freshly dressed.

Shooting Policy

To a degree at least, it is fair to say that we are responsible for our own woodcock. Most home bred birds do not go far, and our winter visitors are very site faithful, tending to return to exactly the same place in subsequent years. We might also guess that their young, although not taught by the parents in any way, would follow a similar migration pattern. It seems likely that they will be pre-programmed to go a similar distance and direction. So, if we over exploit this winter, it is very likely that we will see fewer next year. It therefore seems to me that each shoot should think through its own policy for woodcock.

Some shoots now have a no woodcock rule, but I love my woodcock shooting and my woodcock suppers too much to be happy with that. The GWCT also suggests that we should not shoot before December, when the bulk of the migrants will have arrived. That way, you do not risk putting more pressure on any home bred birds. I also like a policy that says do not shoot a woodcock unless you want to take it home and relish it at table. If we are sensible, shooting woodcock is perfectly sustainable, and there is no need for a ban.

The next breeding survey 2023

The spring of 2023 marks the next joint woodcock breeding survey by GWCT with the British Trust for Ornithology. Taking part is easy; it involves spending a late evening hour in the woods two or three times, and noting down how many times you see a roding woodcock. Keepers and game managers are in a unique position to help with this, so please look out for calls for volunteers in the months leading up to spring 2023.

This article first appeared in Shooting Times