it is one of the most challenging birds you can shoot in the UK. Woodcock shooters are considered among the elite of rough shooters, prepared to travel great distances and at short notice when they hear that ‘the woodcock are in’.
Woodcock shooting is not commercial like pheasant, grouse and partridge. It arrives with the November full moon ahead of the frosts that generally move east across continental Europe that month. By the time the freeze creeps across the UK, you can find large numbers of the bird in Cornwall, West Wales and on the island of Islay. Perhaps that’s why Wild Justice reckons it will be an easy one to ban.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the open season for shooting woodcock is from October 1st to January 31st. In Scotland, it starts a month earlier on 1 September.
Wild Justice wants DEFRA to reduce the season or ban it altogether in England. It has collected more than 55,000 signatures to pressure the government to make changes.
The matter has been rumbling on for months. The government responded to the petition in January 2022.
On his last day in his job as DEFRA secretary in September 2022, George Eustice wrote to Wild Justice to say he was ‘considering taking this thinking a step further’. That prompted The Times newspaper to report that DEFRA intends to review the list of species, including woodcock, on Schedule 2 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 including ‘the benefits’ of altering the close season. That’s what the newspaper claims a government spokesperson called it.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust provides most of the UK’s woodcock science. It tracks woodcock with satellite tags.
Andrew Hoodless of the GWCT is disappointed by the Wild Justice action. He says: ”It strikes me from their rhetoric that they’re ideologically opposed to the shooting of migratory birds, which is fine. But they fail to engage with others and find out what’s going on with the bird.”
Andrew says he doesn’t believe Wild Justice is trying to help recover the species. He says: “They’re just jumping on an opportunity to stop something that they don’t particularly like. And I’m not convinced that just banning things is the way to get to the best solutions.”
Robert Glynn, known as ‘Woodcock Bob’, runs woodcock shoots across the UK and abroad from his home in North Wales.
He says he mistrusts the basis for Wild justice’s objections. He says: “I just wonder where they get their research information from. I’d love to meet them personally, have a good chat with them, take them to show them where the demise of the woodcock is.”
Robert has been running woodcock shoots for 50 years. He says that, apart from a bad winter 12 years ago, he has not seen an issue with numbers of woodcock for shooting. He says he doesn’t see the justification for anyone to stop shooting.
He says: “The birds don’t arrive until the first moon. We don’t shoot for at least ten days after the moon arrives in because the birds are tired.”
Robert and his gamekeeping staff carry out counts to make sure there are sufficient birds for shoots.
Tim Bonner, of the Countryside Alliance, shoots woodcock. He says that, increasingly, driven shoots in the east and south-east of England ask guns not to shoot woodcock. He says: “It is almost the norm rather than the exception now to go on a day shooting in Hertfordshire or Hampshire where woodcock do breed and to say we don’t shoot woodcock.”
The UK has a small population of breeding Eurasian woodcock, mainly in the South-East.
Throughout the winter, a large influx of migrants flood the country from their breeding grounds in Europe, Russia and as far away as Kazakhstan. There is no evidence that shooting is responsible for the decline in the UK breeding population – and it has no effect on the migratory population either.
Tim says Wild Justice is an anti-shooting organisation. He says, “All sorts of nonsense is being talked about this. Nearly every single action they [Wild Justice] has taken relates to shooting. If you think of all the problems of nature and biodiversity, strangely it’s only those that relate to grouse shooting, pheasant shooting and woodcock shooting which Wild Justice is interested in.”
Andrew says thag stopping shooting woodcock before 1 December might help the situation to some extent, but the decline in resident birds has been occurring at a time when shooting pressure has also declined, which suggests that there’s something else going on.
He says: “Actually stopping shooting either altogether or before, before 1 December, in my opinion, won’t stop the decline of woodcock. We need to do more than that. Ideally, helping them breed better.”
In 2003, a survey by GWCT and the British Trust for Ornithology revealed there were 78,000 breeding pairs of woodcock in Britain. In 2013, the GWCT and BTO conducted another survey that showed that the number had fallen 29% to 55,000 pairs.
As a result, and despite the enormous numbers migrating to the UK, the woodcock has been on the red list in the BTO’s Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK since 2015.
Robert says the biggest problem in the decline of woodcock is not shooters. He says farmers cause problems as they remove the cover, such as gorse bushes, that birds need. He says predator control is also essential to help woodcock thrive. He says: “We take a huge number of foxes off the ground. We’ve increased the curlews and every ground nesting birds and even the ducks have increased exponentially because of good control on the ground of foxes.”
The GWCT says shooters are actively managing habitats to suit resident woodcock populations.
Andrew says that, ourside shoots, wading birds such as curlew, are suffering high predation rates. He says: “They’re ground nesting bird and vulnerable in the same way.”
He adds that even the RSPB is beginning to take predation on its reserves seriously, instigating lethal control and putting up exclusion fences.
It is not a bird that’s easy to commercialise for the conservation industry. The RSPB only earns a small amount of taxpayers’ money from woodcock, which it receives for administering bird surveys. It has not published plans to take more grant money for woodcock. Wild Justice, which made its name persuading the government to ban crow and pigeon shooting, turns over around £100,000 a year. It doesn’t publish whether any of that is specifically in order to achieve a woodcock shooting ban.
Andrew says that, for woodcock, a route which engages with shooters and educates them about the science can lead to a more collaborative way forward for the protection of woodcock.
So far, and despite what The Times newspaper reports, DEFRA has no plans for a ban.
It says that recent population trends for woodcock are likely to be influenced by the extent and quality of habitat rather than shooting.
The GWCT is continuing its research to understand the species and help protect its future. Shooters play an active part in helping the wading bird thrive by managing its habitats, being responsible about the numbers they shoot, partly because they are not an easy bird to shoot.