Woodcock are traditionally viewed as one of the most sporting of birds and their appearance adds excitement to any day’s shooting. Their curious zig-zagging flight, and distinctive form make them instantly recognisable, but the numbers of breeding woodcock are declining and shooters can help.
The UK hosts a small, and declining population of breeding woodcock which is supplemented by a large influx of thriving European migrants through the winter. There is no evidence that shooting is responsible for the decline in the breeding population, but in order to safeguard the population we should all act responsibly when shooting one of our noblest sporting birds. We are not calling for a moratorium on woodcock shooting because there is no evidence that this would help. In fact, shooters are responsible for actively managing habitats to suit resident woodcock populations and calling for a ban could well lead to a loss of incentive for the great work that shooters are already doing.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) have produced some excellent advice which we have summarised below:
1. Improve your understanding of your local woodcock population.
Do you know when the migrants arrive on your patch? If not, show restraint until at least late November as it is very likely that any birds you see are resident breeders. The exact timing of when the migrants appears varies and we still don’t have good enough evidence on how this changes throughout the country. You can help by telling us when and where you see your first woodcock here.
2. Show restraint even when resident birds are absent
Woodcock are very site faithful, so even if no woodcock are resident in your area, you could still shoot yourself out of your own sport if you shoot too many of the visiting migrants. Once the migratory link is broken it may never recover.
3. Shoot flight lines with caution
Take care if you shoot woodcock flighting along woodland edges at dusk. It is very easy to overshoot an area this way and you may be shooting yourself out of your own sport.
4. Curb shooting in severe weather
Many UK shooters will be aware of the severe weather protocols we have in place to protect ducks and geese after 14 days of prolonged severe weather. However, the evidence is now suggesting that woodcock may be particularly susceptible to cold weather, especially lying snow. You should stop shooting woodcock after 7 days with temperatures below freezing, or after significant snowfall, and allow the birds to recover for a week before starting shooting again.
How you can help
The main reason we have to be so cautious about shooting woodcock is because we know so little about them. You can help by:
- Follow the advice given above. This advice is based on the best available data gathered by scientists across the world, including the GWCT.
- Providing us with bag data on the woodcock you shoot. The good news is that it currently it looks like the resident population makes up around 17% of the total overwintering population, but only 2% of the bag.
- Record any woodcock you see. and help us get a better idea of where and when migrant birds arrive and where our breeding birds are.
- Provide other data. You can help the GWCT with annual counts of roding woodcock, or, if you shoot your woodcock over pointers you could help provide data on Hunting Index of Abundance.
- Manage your woodlands and predators. Woodcock prefer alder/willow woodlands with good ground cover, little disturbance from walkers and low numbers of deer and ground predators such as foxes. Breeding woodcock forage in woodlands in the summer so try and ensure your woods have wet patches that don’t dry out and can support good numbers of earthworms. Also ensure you keep open areas within your wood by removing older trees.