Woodcock breeding habitats survey

Key findings

  • Woodcock are more likely to breed in landscapes that contain a high proportion of woodland and relatively low proportions of housing and improved grass.
  • The chance of breeding woodcock being present in a wood is increased by the diversity of woodland stand types, the absolute number of different stands and gamekeeper density. The chance is reduced in woods with a high proportion of young trees.

The woodcock remains ‘amber-listed’ as a bird of conservation concern within Britain owing to a large range contraction and probable decline in breeding numbers during the last 30 years. The GWCT-BTO breeding woodcock survey highlighted regional differences in woodcock occurrence. However, a clear understanding of what influences woodcock distribution and what constitutes good breeding habitat is important if management is to be implemented to improve the species’ status.

Using our survey of roding males at 907 woods, we investigated which landscapes and types of wood influenced the occurrence and abundance of breeding woodcock. The presence of a roding male cannot be taken as proof of a female nesting, but it is a good indicator of habitat suitability. We split the sample into woods where woodcock were breeding and woods where they were absent. We then compared the countryside around the two groups of woods using Geographical Information System (GIS) data based on satellite images. This was repeated at five scales, within radii of one kilometre, five, 10, 20 and 30 kilometres from the survey point. There were significant habitat differences in every case, which were similar at all five scales. Woodcock were present in more heavily wooded landscapes and were less likely to occur in woods surrounded by land with a high proportion of housing or improved grassland. The biggest differences between woods with and without woodcock occurred at the five kilometre radius (80 square kilometres) scale.

Figure 1: Comparison of mean percentages of habitats within a five-kilometre radius (80 km²) of survey points where roding woodcock were present and where they were absent

Comparison of mean percentages of habitats within a five-kilometre radius (80 km²) of survey points where roding woodcock were present and where they were absent

Having established that the amount of woodland in the landscape influenced the likelihood of woodcock being present, we examined this in relation to several additional variables thought likely to be relevant based on the species’ ecology (see Table 1). The likelihood of breeding woodcock being present increased further north and east. Relative to woods where woodcock were absent, woods with breeding woodcock had a greater diversity of types of tree stands (deciduous, coniferous, young trees, coppice, shrubs) and a greater number of individual stands, but a lower overall proportion of young trees. The chance of breeding woodcock being present also increased as the number of gamekeepers within five kilometres increased. Roding male abundance was lower in woods with a high proportion of conifers, but higher in woods with more ground vegetation.

Table 1: Factors influencing the occurrence of roding male woodcock in woods in Britain

Variable Relationship Significance
Easting Positive *
Northing Positive ***
Amount of woodland (ha/km2) Positive ***
Diversity of tree stands Positive *
Number of tree stands Positive ***
Proportion of tree stands Negative **
Gamekeeper density (number per km2) Positive ***


Significance: * P<0.05, ** P<0.01, *** P<0.001
A smaller P-value (more asterisks) equates to greater influence.

This takes us a step closer to understanding how woodland and its management can influence breeding woodcock, but it only explains a small proportion (less than 20%) of the variation in our data. We also need to look at other important variables, such as soil type, which is likely to influence food availability for woodcock.

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