Without good woodland, we can’t have woodcock so what can you do to help?
Doing our bit for woodcock
The passion for woodcock runs deep in the shooting community. So many do so much to support the iconic wader – but what are the key boxes we must tick to give the species a helping hand? Kiri Thompson takes a closer look.
Woodcock are small wading birds with short legs and long, slender beaks. Sometimes referred to as the ‘snipe of the woods’, they rely on deciduous or mixed woodland containing clearings, glades or rides. They are largely nocturnal, spending this time foraging for creatures such as worms, beetles, spiders, caterpillars and small snails.
Woodcock numbers in the UK consist of a small resident breeding population – last estimated in 2013 to consist of 55,000 males – and roughly 1.4 million migratory birds that arrive in winter from the likes of Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic States and Russia.
On a global scale, the woodcock is classified a species of ‘least concern’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, with a stable population trend. However, resident UK populations of this bird are in decline and its breeding range is shrinking. In 2015, the woodcock was moved from the amber list to the red list of the Birds of Conservation Concern, due to the contraction in breeding range. Reasons for decline include increased fragmentation of woodlands, changing woodland practices causing lower woodland diversity, and higher levels of predation and disturbance.
The shooting of woodcock is currently under close scrutiny, with calls from some quarters to shorten the shooting season or remove the bird from the quarry list altogether. BASC has robustly challenged these calls, as there is no evidence that shooting is responsible for the decline in woodcock numbers. Moreover, a ban on woodcock shooting could in fact be counterproductive, as it would remove the incentive to actively manage the woodland habitats woodcock rely on, control predators, and minimise disturbance during breeding months.
The passion for woodcock runs deep in the shooting community. Some people won’t shoot them at all, others will. It is, however, important that we do all we can to help conserve this iconic bird.
Habitat is key
Include open spaces, glades and rides in woodland
Over 500,000ha of woodland and 100,000ha of copses are currently managed for game shooting in the UK. So how can those within the shooting community who own or manage woodland help ensure they are ticking the right boxes for woodcock?
Areas where trees and shrubs are present but do not form a closed canopy let more sunlight reach the woodland floor and allow other plant species to grow, creating a mix of habitats and a diverse woodland structure. Open spaces can be created through active management such as felling and thinning, coppicing, or establishing rides (open corridors through the woodland) and glades (isolated areas within the woodland).
Open spaces are important for woodcock, as they use rides and glades for daytime roosting and nesting, and open spaces for display, courtship, and foraging. Including open spaces, rides and glades in your woodland will also benefit other plants and animals including gamebirds.
Provide variety and connections
Woodcock seem to do best in large, well-connected and diverse areas of wet woodland. Research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) indicates that woodcock need a woodland habitat containing a mix of different tree types of varying ages and heights. A woodland with a variety of species will also be more resilient to diseases and pests and better for other plants and animals.
As one of the pressures facing woodcock is woodland fragmentation, improving woodland connectivity on your land by restoring and maintaining nearby hedgerows, or planting trees on small strips of land, will greatly help these birds and other wildlife.
Manage herbivores to improve woodland condition
Herbivores such as deer, squirrels and smaller mammals can damage trees and prevent natural regeneration and regrowth.
A bare woodland floor absent of cover and regeneration has limited value to woodcock. Effective, targeted herbivore management – think culling, and tree protection through use of fencing, tree tubes and guards – can help reduce this damage.
Offer additional foraging opportunities
As well as woodlands, woodcock need open fields to forage in, especially during the winter months. Earthworms are the woodcock’s main source of food and can be encouraged by keeping soils moist but sufficiently well-drained to prevent flooding. Woodcock also require the ground to be wet enough so they can probe into the soil with their long beaks to find food.
Other ways to encourage earthworms include leaving areas of grassland uncultivated, ensuring the soil pH is above 4.5, and reducing the use of certain pesticides and fungicides.
As ground-nesting and foraging birds, woodcock are vulnerable to predation, most notably by foxes. Studies have shown that controlling predators such as foxes and carrion crows can lead to an increase in breeding success of ground-nesting birds. Therefore, the importance of protecting woodcock from predation cannot be overlooked. Effective ways to control foxes include night shooting and snaring. Further information about both control methods can be found on the BASC website.
Minimising human disturbances during the woodcock breeding season (March – June) and when they are rearing young, is key to ensuring successful nesting attempts and survival of fledglings.
Simple steps, such as keeping dogs on a lead when visiting woodlands and suspending woodland management tasks – especially ones involving the use of machinery – during these periods, will ensure disturbances are reduced. Additional signage to encourage members of the public to stick to footpaths is also worth thinking about.
It is important that any shooting of the species is sustainable. The GWCT has produced the following advice – much of which is underpinned by science – for shooting woodcock:
- Avoid shooting woodcock early in the season and refrain from shooting woodcock until the migratory population arrives.
- Gain an understanding of your local woodcock population.
- Show restraint even where resident birds are absent.
- Shoot flightlines with caution.
- Stop shooting in severe weather.
Further information can be found on both the BASC and GWCT websites.
Research and monitoring
As advised by the GWCT, it is important to gain an understanding of your local woodcock population to ensure shooting remains responsible and sustainable.
Woodcock numbers can be assessed by recording sightings on shoot days, observing flightlines, listening for audible calls, and counting at night. You can report data on any woodcock that has been shot using BASC’s Green Shoots Mapping tool on the BASC website.
Although woodcock are covered by various bird surveys, their secretive nature means they are often under-recorded. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and GWCT run a dedicated survey to estimate the range and population of breeding woodcock. To take part you must conduct four dusk visits between April and the end of June and note down how many times you see woodcock during their breeding display flights. The survey is run once every ten years and next occurs this year – 2023. The shooting community can help gather the most accurate estimates by taking part. Further information can be found on the BTO website: bto.org/our-science/projects/woodcock-survey.
Ultimately, actively maintaining vital habitats, managing predators, minimising disturbance, ensuring responsible shooting, and taking part in research and monitoring counts of woodcock, are all essential if we are to help this wonderful bird. We all want to ensure the health of both residing and visiting woodcock – and if we want future generations to enjoy this bird and shooters to enjoy a sustainable harvest, then we must do our bit and be seen doing so in the public domain.