The woodcock is a cryptic, elusive wader adapted for a life in woodland and fields. We have studied the species for over 30 years, conducting some of the fundamental work on the species’ biology, such as its polygynous mating system.
In Britain, we have a resident breeding population estimated at 55,000 males and a total wintering population that could number 1.5 million individuals in some years.
The primary focus of our current work is on understanding and managing populations.
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 (1-3 hectares) 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.
A large percentage of the British population are overwintering birds that migrate to northern and eastern Europe to breed during the Summer. The distances flown by this small bird are incredible and were not fully realised until the Trust carried out a survey using satellite tracking methods a few years ago. The Woodcock Watch project has been very successful and provided us with data about woodcock migration patterns and where our overwintering birds migrate to their breeding grounds.