The woodcock has long been prized as an elusive and challenging species. This sporting interest inspired numerous studies. The first was led by the 6th Duke of Northumberland, in 1891. Today we have the technology to analyse individual feathers in the race to demonstrate the stability of our resident woodcock population.
Our research with other gamebird species has shown that the habitat management and predation control that is part of game management actually enhances the conservation status of a bird.
Dr. Andrew Hoodless, leader of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust's woodcock project, is one of our senior scientists and a recognised expert on the woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). Dr Hoodless is to carry out a detailed study of woodcock migration.
The woodcock was amber listed as a bird of conservation concern in the UK in 2002 due to an apparent decline in its population. This immediately made conservation agencies in the UK and Europe question whether the bird should remain on the UK quarry list.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust's woodcock survey method, which is based on sightings of roding males at dawn and dusk, has produced a new population estimate of 78,000 pairs. This new method is now accepted as best practice and will form the basis of a second national population survey, 10 years after the first, in 2013. The uplifted estimate has alleviated some of the concern, but we still have no way of knowing how shooting pressure impacts on our resident woodcock population, as opposed to our winter migrant population.
To complete the picture we now need to do a second study, to establish how many of the birds shot in the UK are part of our resident population and how many are not. This work may secure the woodcock's position on our quarry list. Dr Hoodless proposes to carry out his count by the examination of isotope signatures within woodcock feathers. This will enable him to establish the birds summer breeding grounds and the timing of migration. In turn, this will complement the long term data that he already holds from "ringing returns".
Our new research will examine feathers from young birds recovered from shoots around the country to establish where each woodcock originated from. Through understanding what proportion of woodcocks in the bag are migratory we can provide the answers we need.
The Edward Grey Institute at Oxford University has kindly given us access to their laboratories. Their equipment is now so sensitive that we will be able to combust the tip of a feather and analyse the atoms. In essence, the isotope work involves vaporising the atoms in the feathers and through analysis of the isotopic constituents, we can then tell which country or region they have come from. These facts will form a vital part of the jigsaw we need to conserve woodcock. Without the evidence we will be just guessing.
The woodcock is an elusive and cryptic wader. It is in autumn, when our resident birds are supplemented by a large influx of migrants from continental Europe, that most woodcock are encountered. Even now, one is seldom treated to more than a fleeting glimpse of the bird as it jinks away through the trees.
The autumn migration provides an amazing spectacle as some 740,000 woodcock migrate to the UK in small flocks, landing on our eastern coastline from Aberdeen to Folkestone. Migrants usually start arriving during the second week of October. Shooting literature suggests that large falls often occur around the time of the full moon in late October and particularly in November, the latter being regarded as 'the woodcock moon'.
The largest number of woodcock recorded at any of the observatories tends to be the Fair Isle, where about 50 per day are seen during peak passages, although more than a thousand were recorded on 27-28 October 1976. The birds have escaped harsh winters and travelled from Norway, Sweden, Finland or as faraway as Russia and Latvia.
You can help us to complete this critical piece of research by making a donation of support. A donation of £65 will cover the cost of sponsoring an individual woodcock so that a detailed analysis of its migratory habits can be made.