BBC presenter Chris Packham has started an e-petition, calling for a moratorium on the shooting of three wader species: woodcock, snipe and golden plover. It has clocked up an impressive 10,000 signatures in a week so Defra will, at least, give him a written answer – it will probably make interesting reading.
We think, however, that some of the language and figures Packham has used are misleading, and while we fully support the idea of gaining a better understanding of the effects of shooting on both the resident and migrant populations of these species, we believe that a moratorium is simply a distraction from addressing the main factors that have driven the declines in our breeding populations of these species.
Snipe – serious ongoing declines?
The snipe is ‘amber-listed’ as a bird of conservation concern owing to a contraction in breeding range of more than 25% in the last 25 years. However, the species has been in serious decline as a breeding bird in Britain and Ireland since at least the 1960s, and reference to the BTO/BirdWatch Ireland/SOC Bird Atlas 2007–11 shows clearly that declines have occurred primarily on lowland farmland. Drainage and changes in grassland management are widely recognised as the main drivers of snipe declines.
Packham mentions an 89% decline in snipe. Presumably he is referring to the 87% decline in the BTO’s Waterways Breeding Birds Survey for 1988-2013, but this excludes farmland and upland habitats and is based on a sample of just 16 plots (see here). It would be more representative to say that the snipe population is currently fluctuating at a low but stable level: the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data for 1995-2014, based on 169 sites, show no clear trend, with the confidence limits including zero (95% CL -7 to 43%, see here and graph below).
Golden plover – not “critically declining”
The golden plover was moved from the amber to the green list of species of conservation concern in 2015. The BBS trend indicates stability or minor decrease in the UK since 1994 (see below), following an earlier decline. Numbers across Europe have been broadly stable since 1981 and numbers wintering in Britain increased from the mid-1980s but have dipped and then partially recovered in recent years. Hence, to suggest that the species is “critically declining” is plainly misleading.
Photo credit: Laurie Campbell
What factors are likely to have caused golden plover declines?
There is sufficient evidence to suggest that we should be concerned about the status and trend of our breeding golden plover population. Several studies have indicated the main pressures facing this species:
- Reduction in suitable habitat in areas heavily used by walkers (Finney et al. 2005).
- Poor nest survival on grass moors, unlike that on heather moors (Crick 1992),
- Increased stocking densities of sheep (Fuller 1996).
- Clutch size has decreased slightly, though a large number of late-season nest records, which provide higher proportions of two- and three-egg clutches, were submitted from an intensive study during 1996-98 (J.W. Pearce-Higgins, pers. comm.).
- Warmer springs are reported to advance the timing of breeding in golden plovers and potentially create a mismatch with availability of their tipulid prey (Pearce-Higgins et al. 2005).
- Climatic warming on cranefly (tipulid) populations will cause northward contraction of the golden plover’s range (Pearce-Higgins et al. 2010).
Perhaps we should focus on the things we can do now, by addressing the first three of these.
Woodcock – serious decline in the British population
GWCT members are well aware of the decline in our resident woodcock population because they helped fund the science. The woodcock was moved from the amber list to the red list of birds of conservation concern in 2015, owing to the scale of range contraction (>50%) in the last 25 years. However, it was the GWCT that devised an appropriate survey method for breeding woodcock and pushed for national surveys with the BTO in 2003 and 2013, to quantify the size of the population and change in numbers (Hoodless et al. 2009, Heward et al. 2015).
This mysterious and cryptic species is difficult to study and we simply don’t know all the answers behind the declines, but it is likely to be a combination of:
- Increased fragmentation of woodlands
- Change in woodland structure as forests mature
- Rising deer numbers reducing understorey vegetation and increasing disturbance
- Increased predation pressure
- Recreational disturbance by dog walkers
- The disappearance of permanent grasslands
- Perhaps game shooting
What percentage of woodcock shot are resident birds?
As with snipe and golden plover, the woodcock population in winter is greatly inflated by the influx of migrant birds. With woodcock these originate mainly from Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic states and Russia, where available evidence suggests that trends are stable.
Packham has his figures confused when he states that “studies of shot birds report that 17% are UK residents”. We estimate that about 17% of the British wintering woodcock population is resident birds. A PhD study, supervised by the GWCT and the University of Oxford, using stable isotope analysis of feathers from 1,129 birds, sampled across six locations in mid-winter, revealed that less than 2% of shot woodcock were residents. This work is currently being written up for a peer-reviewed journal.
Consequently, it is unlikely that shooting is the main factor driving the decline at a national level, but at this stage we cannot rule it out as a contributing factor. Last year we published advice to reduce any impact of shooting on residents and we welcome its adoption by shooting organisations. The key messages are:
- Improve understanding of local woodcock populations before considering shooting
- Show restraint even where resident birds are absent
- Shoot flight lines with caution
- Curb shooting in cold weather
A statutory moratorium on shooting to conduct research on its impacts?
There are several ways in which the impact of shooting could be assessed, and we have started this work with woodcock. However, one of the best ways of determining whether the mortality from shooting on resident populations is additive to natural mortality is through an experiment. If we wish to continue studying the impacts of shooting, it stands to reason that it is not possible to do this after a statutory moratorium has been introduced.
On the other hand, local voluntary moratoriums provide the opportunity to study the impact of shooting. They have also proven to be effective conservation practice for the recovery of both black grouse and grey partridge. If you wish to see grey partridges, go to somewhere where they are shot. Responsible shoots are mindful of the status of quarry species and prepared to invest in monitoring and habitat measures to ensure population persistence, even in years when shooting is not possible.
The shooting community has already responded to GWCT calls for people to show caution where woodcock are declining locally and is working with us to follow best habitat practice and promote local recovery. There is some evidence (in preparation) that the shooting community has already responded by reducing the number of woodcock shot in the UK.