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Woodcocks need our help

Environmentalist Lucy Lapwing makes the case for shorter season for shooting woodcock, to help declining populations recover.

August 2022

Woodcocks are rather strange birds. Comically long beaks protrude from their faces, and their bulging black eyes seem, somehow, to be in the wrong place. Despite this, they’re undeniably beautiful.

This is a bird that’s secretive and cryptically camouflaged; speckles and splashes of brown helping them blend in with the woodland floor. It’s not that often you see one. If you do, it tends to be after dark – watching the males whizz around in the sky above you, creaking and squeaking as they fly.

It’s quite hard to know *exactly* how many Woodcock live in the UK. Their elusiveness and aforementioned camouflage make them tricky to survey. By counting males ‘roding’ – i.e. performing their display flight – we can get a rough estimate.

Surveys by the BTO and GWCT put that figure at around 55,000 males back in 2013 – during a study carried out every 10 years. The next survey will be carried out in 2023 and will give us an insight into population changes since then. If we assume an equal ratio of females to males, this puts the adult population in spring at around 110,000. Sadly, the breeding population of Woodcock is declining in the UK, with an estimated 29% decline between 2003 and 2013.

Despite this, Woodcock are classified as a ‘game bird’ and can be shot in season. So, what happens to their population throughout the autumn and winter?

By September, the population is swelled by that year’s offspring. Depending on survival rates, this could put the number of Woodcock in September to anything between 130,000 – 180,000 individuals. This is the time of year Woodcock will be bracing themselves for the cold winter months ahead. Frozen ground can make for tricky eating, when you’re a bird reliant upon your long beak for probing the soil. This is also the time of year that the Woodcock shooting season opens in Scotland. This means in the month of September only UK breeding individuals, and their offspring, are likely to be killed on shoots in Scotland.

On October 1st, the Woodcock shooting season opens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. During early autumn, the Woodcock population in the UK is still largely our breeding one. This means that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, our breeding Woodcock are being shot throughout October. For Scotland, it’s double that time – two whole months of shooting breeding birds and their young.

In November, the winds change, and winter starts to take an icy grip. During this shift to colder weather, we see a big influx of Woodcock coming into the UK. through November, up to 1.3m migratory Woodcock arrive here from places across Europe, Western Russia and Asia, to spend the winter in our relatively milder climate. It’s in November that the shooting pressure on our declining breeding population eases. Shoots are now likely to be killing Woodcock that have arrived from elsewhere. Whilst this still isn’t ideal, Woodcock populations elsewhere are thought to be stable in numbers. 

Now it’s officially winter, and large numbers of Woodcock have boosted our population temporarily, up to around 1.4m birds.

To Wild Justice, it seems sensible that the shooting season be limited. By shifting the start date to December 1st, we can relieve the pressure on this declining bird’s breeding population. We think this only makes sense, and others agree too.

GWCT have recommended shooters refrain from taking Woodcock before this date. Their own guidance, and survey data, supports this stance and they say ‘we recommend not shooting Woodcock before 1st December’.

Many individual shooters have been surprised at the scale of the numbers shot, some have even accused us of making up the figures until we point out that we have used GWCT figures. Some Woodcock are shot on Pheasant shoots, and some of those shoots have told their clients that Woodcock are off limits (which is good). But much casual shooting of Woodcock continues and there are estates in the southwest of England, in Wales and in Scotland that offer Woodcock shooting as their main sales pitch. Many shooters think that if it did any harm then ‘government’ would have changed the shooting season – so that’s what we want governments across the UK to do.

Help Wild Justice help Woodcock. Please add your name to our petition, and share widely within your circles. We’ve only got 38 days until this season opens on 1st October, so every day and every signature counts!

Lucy Lapwing 

Follow @WildJustice_org  and @Lucy_Lapwing 

Sign the Wild Justice petition here

Photo credit for image of woodcock on snow - Olly Smart

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.