The overwhelming conclusion to the 2007/2008 woodcock shooting season is that it has been one of the best for quite some time. In fact, some of the more euphoric commentators described it as the best season ever. For many of the shoots who participate in the Woodcock Broadcast, this season has been the best on record. This was as much the case for the Okehampton Woodcock Club in Devon as it was for several locations in Ireland and also Scotland. This was not simply a prolific season for woodcock but an unusual one as well. The woodcock arrived in great numbers throughout October across the British Isles and Ireland. While some respondents felt that the November fall of cock did not happen in anything like the numbers to be expected, this view was largely confined to Wales. In other parts of the country, in Cornwall, Devon, the east coast of Scotland and the west coast of the Irish Republic, contacts reported huge numbers of woodcock.
For my part, I do not think that Wales did that badly. Even though I spent approximately 30 per cent less time in the field this season my records show that numbers flushed and numbers shot are as high as the best of seasons. This is a view widely held by most of the Welsh Guns I have contact with. I have not witnessed any significant reduction in woodcock numbers throughout the season. During the week commencing 14 January, I was host to Dr Jean Paul Boidot past chairman of the French Woodcock Club (CNB) and current chairman of FANBPO, the European Federation of Woodcock Hunting Clubs. Despite the atrocious weather, with torrential rain and storms of all descriptions, we managed to shoot in the dry windows of opportunity by rearranging plans and bouncing around mid- and north Wales. Despite the floods, a saturated landscape and the need for chest waders to ford some of the streams, we had a successful and enjoyable week. On several days the weather restricted us either to mornings, before the rain returned, or to afternoons, as it passed on before re-emerging at dusk. By the end of the week we had flushed 97 woodcock for 26 shot. Not a huge number but, given the monsoon-like conditions which limited our time, a good indication of how many woodcock there were.
The season was also unusual in the high ratios of juveniles to adults in the bag. Regular readers will recall that we were given assurances of this by Dr Yves Ferrand way back in October and so it proved to be. Some of the bags I examined contained 70 per cent juveniles. Leading up to Christmas, Mike Sherman informed me that he was picking up a ratio of 86 per cent juveniles to adults. Such percentages were common to most parts of the British Isles, Ireland and France.
In late January, Dr Yves Ferrand contacted me to confirm the 2007/08 woodcock hunting season in France has been a rather good one. Signs of abundance are better than those of the previous year. Migration was normal thanks to cold temperatures in October, which pushed the birds to the south west. So, contrary to the 2006-2007 situation, all migratory woodcock reached their wintering areas. In France the highest abundance was observed in the north-west (Brittany) and central regions. The hunting and ringing index show a higher preponderance of juveniles to adults, but that is yet to be finalised.
Other contacts in France, such as Dr Jean Paul Boidot, reported a very high percentage of juveniles at around the 70 per cent level. Woodcock numbers remained high from October through to the end of January. I received few complaints of low numbers or a lack of woodcock. What I did receive in abundance was complaints about the weather. From the New Year on, we once again experienced torrential and almost incessant downpours which left the land absolutely saturated and in some areas the woodcock were flooded out of their usual cover. This very wet weather also has an impact upon the woodcocks favourite food source, the earthworm. In very wet conditions, earthworms are driven deeper in the soil, making them less accessible to woodcock. In part, this explains the growing number of thin birds I encountered from December onwards. Some woodcock were clearly finding it difficult to find sufficient earthworms. The other effect of the wet weather was that the woodcock shifted to well-drained cover and were to be found in high numbers in upland areas dominated by gorse. On windy days, such areas can produce spectacular sport. However, the extreme wet did curtail many peoples sport. Clearly the birds do not flush or fly as well as they do on a dry or frosty day.
From Scotland, Cocker has gathered his information and data from across south-east Scotland and Fife which enables him to declare good numbers of cock seen throughout south-east Scotland and Fife. In fact, most shoots down the eastern side are reporting record falls of woodcock. Even with the pre-Christmas freeze, the cock remained faithful to the south east with numbers swelling over the December full moon. The post-Christmas snow has helped concentrate the birds. Recently, from a bag of 25, 40 per cent were juveniles. On a neighbouring shoot from another double-figure bag, 80 per cent were juvenile.
In the west of Ireland, Dave Egan was a very satisfied woodcock shooter: I have never been a big-bag man I will, however, remember his season as the best I have ever had. From the Midlands of Ireland Brean Conlon echoed this view: The season has been excellent. Plenty of birds on each outing. Averaged 20 flushed per outing. Some days much higher than this in the mid-thirties.
In England, Ian Brown, a gamekeeper in Northamptonshire declared: What a season for woodcock this has been. On the shoot I keeper, we have seen woodcock on each of the seven days we shoot, upwards of a dozen each time. Woodcock have been shot on several of these days. Well done to all the Guns for showing them the respect they deserve.
As for Wales, the last word is from me. It was another fantastic season despite the worst that the elements could throw at us. For those who know their woodcock there was no shortage of birds. For me, the essence of what it is all about is encapsulated in the outing I shared with Dr Jean Paul Boidot on the last day of his visit in mid-January. Shooting on my favourite kind of terrain, steep slopes covered in gorse and bracken, on a day of winds gusting to 60mph, we enjoyed some truly spectacular sport. While I worked the upper slope sides of the cover, sending the dog in and down, Jean Paul walked the lower slopes some 70 yards below me. By the time the woodcock reached him they were way, way up and going absolutely flat out. From the 26 flushed, we managed to shoot eight and missed quite a few more, including a perfect right-and-left opportunity. I am sworn to secrecy.
This past season has been characterised by optimum weather conditions at peak migration time coupled with a very successful breeding season. One thing is clear, the woodcock continues to be a sporting success story. There is, currently, no shortage of woodcock, no diminution in numbers and no negative conservation status as a result
of shooting pressure. However, it is worth noting that shooting pressure elsewhere in Europe in France, Italy and Greece is far higher than it is here in the British Isles. We cannot be complacent and we cannot be overindulgent. I make no apologies for repeating the message that the woodcock is a precious wild resource that we should only harvest sensibly. It is not a financial commodity and we should not treat it as such. We woodcock enthusiasts and roughshooters are very privileged people. We are fortunate enough to be able to hunt one of the few remaining truly wild species on the quarry list.
The fact that invariably we do this in spectacular surroundings, in some of the wildest, most remote and still relatively untouched places in the country is an incalculable bonus. It not only adds to the days pleasure but for many of us it forms an integral part of the whole hunting experience. Each season adds to the bank of memories as we recall special birds, special places and special times with like-minded friends. There is a lot more to woodcock shooting than merely shooting woodcock. Roll on the next season and in the meantime we must guard and protect our right to indulge our love of the sport.
Professor Trotman asks that readers who are ageing their birds send details to him via ST. Also, if any reader has shot a ringed woodcock this season, please send the ring details to him via ST.