Chris Packham – GWCT response to the call for a moratorium on shooting waders

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?

SnipeThe 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).

BBS index for snipe 1994-2015

Golden plover – not “critically declining”

Golden plover flockThe 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

BBS index for golden plover 1994-2015

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:

  1. Reduction in suitable habitat in areas heavily used by walkers (Finney et al. 2005).
  2. Poor nest survival on grass moors, unlike that on heather moors (Crick 1992),
  3. Increased stocking densities of sheep (Fuller 1996).
  4. 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.).
  5. 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).
  6. 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

Roding woodcockGWCT 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:

  1. Improve understanding of local woodcock populations before considering shooting
  2. Show restraint even where resident birds are absent
  3. Shoot flight lines with caution
  4. 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.

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at 9:59 on 10/01/2017 by David Williams

I agree entirely with what Tom Eastman says above. Blatantly incorrect comment from Packham which he has rightly been picked up on but if the shooting community wants to gain the respect and support of Joe Public it needs to show that it can and will self regulate where there is room for genuine concern. Far too often the argument on both sides is shown as black and white and the approach taken that if they are campaigning in one direction then we must campaign in the other. Showing an understanding of the other sides concerns and accepting that they have a point when they do (and taking appropriate steps) would go a long way towards breaching the ever widening divide and making headway in spreading understanding of what we do and why.

Moratorium on Shooting Waders Bird

at 21:58 on 04/10/2016 by Tom Eastman

Whilst much of what Chris Packham has published and lobbied for in the last 12 months has been ill judged and in my opinion incorrect, both in his evidence but also in its desired outcome; I do not however disagree with his desire to ban the shooting of Snipe, Plovers and Woodcock. The snipe has seriously declined over the past decade in my opinion and whilst shooting probably contributes very little to this decline lets just leave Jack alone, if we stopped shooting him even if it made a 1% difference, it all counts. Why anybody would want to shoot a Golden Plover I am not sure, but I can only assume he tastes very good. Now the woodcock as described above the 'mysterious and cryptic species'. It always saddens me when shooting if I see one in the bag. I would however be far happier to see shooting regulate itself in the same way Salmon fishing does with catch and release rather than an outright ban. Those who shoot many snipe and woodcock in a season should consider if it is really necessary before pulling the trigger and think hard about the potential future Implications of their actions, you cannot simply restock the pen the following season and the problem goes away!


at 12:10 on 04/10/2016 by George Stead

What a pity Chris Packham hasn't responded or at the very least corrected or justified by source of the information he puts out. In my opinion all he does is debase his TV appearances as I now know that I can't trust or believe anything he says and some of that doubt brushes off on the BBC whiich now appears to be 100% run by people that only believe in propaganda and whitewash to cover it up


at 11:06 on 04/10/2016 by John A Burton

The arguments about declines are a tad misleading. Most start from a compartively recent base line, and snipe numbers are nothing like the days when I was an enthusiastic birder -- up to 2500 at Beddingto Sewage Farm in Croydon in the 1960s, plus some 40 jack snipe. And read Col Hawker, and you will realsie how abundant snipe should or could be, as he marched across the countryside blazing away. More to the point however, these are small birds, the size of a song thrush, for which there is no need to kill them. The 'sport' ineviably leave lots of injured dying birds (I know from first hand observations) and it is very difficult to see any justification for not having at least a moratorium.


at 15:03 on 29/09/2016 by Wayne B WHITCHER

Once again ...like the predictable creature of habit that he is , Packham uses embellishments and spurious figures grasped from thin air to address his most current bugbear. Thank god for science based research from the GWCT to counter the likes of him and his ilk. We have seen his sort before ,they come and they go . Yet another mouthpiece using the BBC as his method of communication. We will have the final word ...and ours will be one of truth .

Scientifically-based rebuttal of misleading claims

at 10:51 on 29/09/2016 by Keith Cowieson

Good to read such a thorough, balanced and above all, rational, scientifically-based rebuttal of the misleading claims made in the petition. And good to see that the photograph illustrating the posting is of an Eurasian bird (as opposed to its American cousin). Defra officials could do a lot worse than use this response in its unedited entirety for their written answer. You should bring it to the attention of the responsible desk officer. Keep up the good work.

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