Last November when I wrote my first woodcock article of the season (Woodcock in the spotlight, 11 November 2009), we were nearing the end of an Indian summer and the initial signs were that the season did not look promising. I was certainly not expecting snow accompanied by a bumper influx of woodcock before Christmas, especially given the cold spell and the exceptional woodcock numbers early in January 2009. It proves just how unpredictable our weather can be.
In early January, a cold weather shooting ban came into force in Scotland and widespread snow and freezing conditions occurred across England and Wales. While the woodcock seem largely to have left mainland Scotland, I have recently received reports from excited sportsmen from Yorkshire, Cumbria, Wales, the Midlands, the south-west and Ireland, all of whom have all seen large numbers. Many of these have turned up in unusual places and been flushed in twos or threes, with occasional sightings in fields during the day.
On my study area in Hampshire, numbers were building up in late December. For the first time since Ive been lamping, I saw four woodcock together within a few feet of each other one night. They had obviously recently arrived as they were on part of a large pasture where Id not seen birds all season. Despite the first bird standing up and beginning to walk away, I was lucky to catch one for ringing before the others flew off. Birds in pairs or groups are generally tricky to catch compared with singletons and I often end up cursing in these situations. The average weight of this and three other birds caught over the next two days in mid-December was 356g. They were in good condition and 25g heavier than is typical at this time of year. Three days later, hard frosts and heavy snowfall arrived, so these birds had seemingly been feeding up in anticipation of adverse conditions. Owen Williams in Mid Wales reported that he had seen large numbers of woodcock, which he presumed had arrived with the January moon. Many were in groups of threes, fours and fives.
I presume that many of these birds were pushed south and west into Britain and Ireland from their Continental wintering grounds as a result of temperatures touching -20°C in Russia and Scandinavia. We still have much to learn about woodcock movements and behaviour in cold weather, but they often seem to aggregate in such conditions. Whether they move around in groups or simply congregate by chance in the warmest parts of woods by day and the safest or least frozen parts of fields at night remains to be proved.
Sightings of such large numbers of woodcock generate great interest and speculation, and it has been fascinating speaking to so many country people recently about their experiences. This has convinced me that there is sufficient interest for some active regional woodcock groups, which collectively could generate a wealth of valuable information on the status and movements of woodcock in winter and summer. I envisage membership being open to anyone with an interest in woodcock and hope that the groups will be supported by all organisations involved in woodcock conservation. Discussions have already been held with the Woodcock Network and BASC. I see the main purpose of these groups as a support network for research into topics that need large-scale participation and rely on the sort of information that only sportsmen and women can provide. Active involvement by group members will be the key to its success. Members will be able to take part in one or more projects, requiring different levels of commitment, depending on their interests and the time they can spare.
Projects are also likely to vary between the regions. Hence, information on wintering woodcock will be important in Devon and Cornwall though a project on breeding woodcock will be of little relevance. But in Lincolnshire and Norfolk, for example, breeding surveys will be very valuable in addition to involvement in winter projects.
Feedback through newsletters and regional events will be essential. These events could give speakers from different organisations the chance to update groups on topical issues and to discuss research and management techniques. These gatherings will also allow members to share their experiences.
I envisage providing training in survey techniques as a vital form of support for groups to enable members to become involved in activities that require particular skills, such as the Woodcock Networks ringing activities or the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trusts breeding woodcock survey. Where there is sufficient interest, dedicated days in the field could be organised to provide an introduction to and experience of ringing or counting roding woodcock. Setting up the groups and then establishing the infrastructure to sustain them may take a while, perhaps three years to roll-out to all the regions. However, once they are in place it should be easier to gather information on woodcock on a large scale from all over the country. The groups will be asked to provide specific information, which will be used to provide a clearer insight into woodcock ecology to help with the birds’ conservation.
If the shooting community becomes involved, this will help demonstrate the level of interest taken in quarry species
and the value placed on them.
Dr Andrew Hoodless is a senior scientist at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. To help set up a woodcock group or serve on a committee in your area, tel 01425 651031 or email email@example.com.