07 November 2022

Wait for the evidence before changing law on woodcock shooting, urge authors of GWCT conservation guide

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The decline in Britain and Ireland’s resident breeding woodcock population is likely to be driven by habitat loss as woodland becomes increasingly fragmented and less well managed, suggests a new conservation guide from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Conserving Our Woodcock: Research-based measures to help the UK’s resident population, distils the GWCT’s 50 years of woodcock research into practical guidance on how to provide the varied habitat woodcock require. It comes at a time when Defra is being urged to consider introducing a legal ban on the shooting of woodcock until after 30 November.

Conserving Our Woodcock’s authors argue that, until more data on the current state of the resident population is available, a legal change to the start of the woodcock shooting season is unlikely to help and may damage woodcock conservation.

Dr Andrew Hoodless, GWCT Director of Research and leading authority on woodcock, said:
“GWCT and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) will be conducting a repeat national Breeding Woodcock Survey in 2023. This will provide an up-to-date population estimate and enable regional assessments of change in breeding woodcock numbers since the last survey in 2013. It would be sensible to wait for the results before considering a statutory change to the woodcock season.

“Much of the justification for a sustainable harvest of woodcock is based on the benefits of woodland being retained and managed by shoots to support the species. Enforcing a shorter season now risks alienating them and impacting woodcock conservation efforts.”

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The authors highlight the need to fully examine all the factors that may have influenced breeding woodcock numbers during the period of population decline. National surveys carried out by GWCT and BTO in 2003 and 2013 revealed a decline of almost a third in resident breeding woodcock during that decade. But a GWCT survey of shoots* (2017/18) showed that shooting pressure has reduced, with more people choosing not to shoot woodcock, or following GWCT advice to postpone shooting until 1 December when migrant woodcock have arrived from Europe and the impact on resident birds is much reduced.

“Based on our research, we think the impact of shooting on woodcock at a national scale is likely to be small relative to other factors, but it could be important at a local level,” continued Andrew. “For that reason, we would strongly urge shoots where there are resident breeding woodcock to postpone shooting until December and to follow the simple guidelines contained in this booklet which can help protect breeding woodcock during the shooting season.”

Woodcock are found in woodland habitats right across northern Europe and Asia. In winter the British Isles see an influx of up to 1.3 million migrant woodcock from the main breeding grounds in Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States and Russia. The global woodcock population is stable, but research by the GWCT and BTO has shown a severe decline in Britain’s resident population, leading to their addition to the Red List of birds of conservation concern. The resident population fell by 29% from 78,350 males in 2003 to 55,240 males in 2013.

According to Andrew, one of the main threats to woodcock is habitat loss.

GWCT research has found that woodcock occurred more often in large, well-connected woods made up of a mixture of species and far from human settlement. They need a diversity of habitats; open areas such as rides and glades for roding (breeding display flights), relatively open woodland for nesting, and thicker woodland for foraging when chicks are young and for protection from predators.

Woodland cover in Britain has increased since the 1940s, which should be good news for woodcock. But the type of woodland has changed. Between 1940 and 1990, the amount of coniferous woodland has tripled but the amount of coppiced, multi-species woodland has decreased by over 80%.

“Without a shift in approach to woodland planting and management, the changes we are likely to see to British woodland in coming decades means that good habitat for breeding woodcock will become even scarcer, and that is likely to be one of the driving factors in declines,” commented Andrew.

Conserving Our Woodcock is a significant contribution to the debate around this much loved and enigmatic bird. Renowned woodcock conservationist Owen Williams describes it as a “milestone in our understanding of the species” and says that “it would be a tragedy if the results of this formidable effort were ignored in the formation of future policy”.

“We must gain a better understanding of the pressures on our native breeding woodcock, from climate change, habitat loss, predation and shooting. Our research is ongoing, and we expect to have further answers next year,” said Andrew.

“Until then, we would urge Defra to hold off making changes to the close season for woodcock. And we are asking shoots to do their best to look after any resident woodcock until we have a better idea of what is driving their decline and have a good understanding of the effect of shooting on numbers.”

Conserving Our Woodcock offers easy to follow guidance, based on GWCT research, for shoots and land managers interested in protecting and supporting breeding woodcock. You can order a paper copy here.

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Take part in the 2023 Breeding Woodcock Survey

The GWCT and BTO are asking people to help them establish the current status of our breeding woodcock by taking part in the next national survey in spring 2023, which simply involves three evening counts during May and June. Find out more here.

Notes to editors

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.

For information, contact:
Eleanor Williams
Telephone: 07592 025476
Email: press@gwct.org.uk