This season has been somewhat confusing and frustrating, but it is clear that our protracted mild weather is having an impact upon woodcock densities and locations. Unusual things are afoot on the Continent. In north-western France, Dr Jean Paul Boidot (FANBPO) has endured several ?no woodcock? days, unprecedented in his 50 years? experience. While there are few in Brittany, Dr Yves Ferrand, of the French Game Department, reports abundant numbers in the country?s eastern regions.
Altitude is a factor, as woodcock first alight at alpine levels early in the season, but by January the snow and frost would have driven them to lower ground ? thus no snow in the Jura or the Pyrenees equals woodcock staying put. In early December I received some truly remarkable news, also unprecedented: the Russian woodcock team was still finding woodcock in its forests.
Britain and Ireland have far more woodcock than France, Denmark and Greece, where this season has been the worst anyone can recall. Caution must be exercised before we declare this season a disaster. Contacts present a mixed picture. Some are seeing ?loads? of woodcock, some ?normal? numbers and others very few. I am seeing less than I usually do, but then I haven?t yet visited higher-altitude hunting grounds. This will be resolved before 31 January. It will be interesting to see if there is any significant difference.
Most parts experienced a significant influx of woodcock in early December. This was the case in Ireland, too. Most respondents soon reported that the birds quickly vanished and moved on, however. Did they, in fact, ?move up??
By early December, Mark Hinge, in the Vale of Glamorgan, was seeing more woodcock and expected more on the full moon of 5 December. In North Wales, Louie O?Donovan was seeing a lot of woodcock across the shoots on which he picks-up. Down in Pembrokeshire, Mike Sherman reported: Plenty of woodcock here (7 December): one local shoot flushed 70 in a day. The average number flushed is 20 to 25.
I flushed 11 in a very small area on 9 December. This increase in numbers was recorded right across Wales in the first couple of weeks of December. Sport quickly tailed off, however. On 19 December, Mike Sherman reported: Very patchy. Club shoot last Saturday, 14 Guns out, only flushed six.
This pessimism was echoed by Roger Evans: Numbers are disappointing after what seemed a good fall in early December. They appear to have dispersed quickly and are now thin on the ground. Strange things are happening. I saw some swallows recently. Perhaps it?s been too mild to trigger normal migration patterns.
Matters had improved by Boxing Day, thankfully. I enjoyed a superb day with artist Owen Williams. We flushed 18 for five shot. Should have been more, but it?s not a numbers game is it. Williams, Williams, Jones and Co were also enjoying their Boxing Day sport, flushing 15 for five shot in a mixed bag that included five pheasants and eight rabbits. A great roughshooting day.
Is altitude a factor? For Louie O?Donovan it seems so: Still loads about on 5 January 2007. In the hills I flushed 20 on a walk around. I stayed on until dusk, not to shoot, just to see. The sky was studded with woodcock flying out to feed.
Coincidentally, sport also picked up in Ireland. A relieved Brian Conlon exclaimed: Good news. Sport was poor up until the full moon (5 December). It was as if someone had flicked a switch. Over three days we flushed 68 cock for 24 bagged. Great sport. They?re here now.
By 30 December, John Bourke was also in among the woodcock: Our woodcock season commenced this week. For a while there we had become despondent, but all that has changed. Today we flushed 14.
The sport with woodcock was unevenly distributed, however. In the south, ?Cock Robin? confirmed: Woodcock situation is very poor. North Clare is a disaster, as are parts of Kerry. A friend out on four separate days flushed only 15. You would expect to flush that many in a couple of hours in a normal season. The weather is to blame, as the birds are all over the place.
David Egan, in Ennis, was equally perplexed: Out shooting four days over the holidays. Very poor: four cock for four days. I?m seeing more woodcock flighting while out after duck than ever before, however. I?ve counted 26 so far. Another point is that we are flushing them from very strange places. It?s the weather, I think.
The view that numbers are very low across Ireland is shared by Larry Taaffe, of the Woodcock Association of Ireland, who suggested to me they are down by 70 per cent.
Have you heard the one about the Nigerian centre-forward and the woodcock? Dave Egan, a passionate supporter of Newcastle, reported: Last night, 6 December, at St James? Park, during the Reading game, a woodcock used the pitch as a landing strip. The game was stopped as it ran up and down the pitch, with our Nigerian centre-forward finding it hard to keep up. He eventually caught it and play resumed. The woodcock was later released in the park. Newcastle won 3-2. A happy ending for both the Magpies and the woodcock.
Barry Fudge, of the Okehampton Woodcock Club, reported a good day on 29 November, with 10 shot. On 2 December, Louie Squance shot a ringed woodcock in Devon and passed details to me. It had been ringed in the Czech Republic as a juvenile on 10 October 2005. Jaroslav Cepak, of Praha Ringing Centre, pointed out this was only the second recovery of one of theirs in the UK. The first was in 1943.
In Staffordshire, Steve Cooper, of Cookshill Flytying, noticed an influx on 23 December: We had only seen one woodcock for the whole season up until 23 December, when we saw five for two shot, including a first for Steve Thomas. We see very few usually. These birds must have been a part of a fall locally.
By 21 December, things had deteriorated in Devon. Barry Fudge noted: It?s been slow throughout December. We?ve only had one decent day, with 10 woodcock in the bag. We?ve not had a decent fall since November.
Charles Fearn, in Derbyshire, was more optimistic: Still a number of woodcock about and I am seeing them every time I go out. In the south west, numbers seem to be picking up. Mike Appleby, headkeeper on the Honeycombe shoot, contacted me to say: More positive sightings this week (1 January): saw nine on 4 January in a small area we have coppiced. A huge improvement.
Scotland is the country bucking the current trend. It would appear numbers increased significantly in December and stayed put. On 4 December, James Gray, on the Shetland Isles, experienced a sudden influx: I flushed 15 and bagged just four. All were a good size and all very dark in colour. Since then the weather has been poor, with lots of rain. Once the wind eases they?ll be off south.
On the east coast, ?Cocker? noted: Certainly about, but not concentrated ? too mild ? and not in numbers as last year. The Continent is unusually mild also. A happier picture on the Isle of Skye, as portrayed by headkeeper Michael MacKenzie: The woodcock seem to be back to normal levels (15 December). We had a shoot last week doing our pheasant cover and only did two of our woodcock areas, but still we saw 43.
In south Lanarkshire, John Irving was also seeing a number of birds, while back on Skye matters continued to improve: Gary, our underkeeper, had one guest out roughshooting for three days in the week leading up to Christmas. They saw 56 woodcock for 14 shot. Headkeeper Michael Mackenzie, however, ever cautious, declared he would have expected them to have seen more: I?m not convinced we?ve had huge numbers passing through. As for the rest of Scotland, if rumours are to be believed there is no shortage of woodcock on Islay either, with some large bags shot.
An unusual season, but we should not jump to any hasty conclusions. The Woodcock Broadcast is only a snapshot of what is happening, but an important one, nevertheless. There are individuals and commercial woodcock shoots that remain quiet about woodcock numbers seen and especially numbers shot. As is the way of shooting folk, however, the information does eventually leak out and I can tell readers that there have been some very large bags of woodcock shot north of the Border.
As for us roughshooters, the problem is the mild weather. Frost and cold would drive birds towards their usual wintering grounds and thus concentrate their numbers. Don?t hold your breath. On 3 January I shot three woodcock, which I put to hang in my unheated outhouse. Next evening there were bluebottles on them. Well, two at least.
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