Wading birds do not literally spend their lives knee-deep in water, although most of them have an affinity for coasts or wetlands at some stage of their life cycle. Research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has focused on snipe Gallinago gallinago and woodcock Scolopax rusticola for over 30 years, and more recently also on upland waders such as lapwing Vanellus vanellus, golden plover Pluvialis apricaria and curlew Numenius arquata.
Woodcock and snipe are currently the only waders that are shot in significant numbers in Britain. Although the UK breeding populations of these birds are not large, and their numbers may have suffered in the face of agricultural modernisation, the numbers of migratory wintering birds from Fennoscandia and the former Soviet Union are huge by comparison, constituting over 90% of the total wintering populations.
Snipe breed locally throughout Britain but the highest densities of birds are found on wet lowland grass that is subject to periodic flooding. Most upland bogs support breeding snipe, albeit at relatively low densities, and the species' current distribution is biased towards northern England and Scotland. Breeding success is often poor because a high proportion of nests is lost to predators and many nests and chicks are trampled by livestock.
Snipe numbers in Britain have declined steadily since the Second World War, probably because of wet meadow drainage to improve pasture or increase arable land, increased stocking rates and sileage production. The British breeding population is currently estimated at about 55,000 pairs. Numbers are believed to still be declining slowly, particularly in southern England.
By contrast, the preferred breeding habitat of woodcock is deciduous or mixed woodland, but conifer plantations are used up to the thicket stage, as are large patches of bracken in upland areas. Wide rides and small clearings (1-3hectares) provide easy access and flight paths in large woodlands, and an understorey of brambles, hazel, holly or bracken is important to provide cover from avian predators. The bird is absent as a breeder from Devon, Cornwall and southern and western Wales.
Although the number of birds breeding in the UK is believed to have declined over the last 20 years, woodcock were rare or absent as breeding birds until the mid-19th century, when extensive planting of pheasant coverts was probably responsible for an increase in numbers. The recent decline could be related to the maturing of large conifer forests planted in Scotland, Wales and East Anglia in the 1950s and 1960s.
In spring and early summer male birds are conspicuous over woodland when they perform their breeding display flights (roding). Breeding woodcock are currently most abundant in the north of England and the lower-lying areas of Scotland. In the south, the best numbers occur in Kent, Sussex and Surrey.