This woodcock shooting season has been a difficult one to assess. Some contributors to the broadcast have not experienced any significant drop in woodcock numbers, while others have had a poor time of it. In earlier broadcasts this year, I suggested that the mild and wet weather patterns across the British Isles and the Continent were playing havoc with woodcock hunters.
Clearly, for large parts of the season what birds existed were spread far and wide. The snowy and icy conditions we witnessed in the fourth week of January proved the point, as woodcock quickly congregated in the south-western regions woodcock shooters in Pembrokeshire had a lean time up until the week commencing 22 January, and were then inundated with woodcock.
Based on the weekly reports I have received from readers in all parts of the British Isles and Ireland, however, my gut feeling is that numbers were down on the 2005/2006 season, but not drastically so. Looking at my shooting diaries from the season 1999/2000 to date, I can conclude that numbers flushed were roughly 30 per cent down. Interestingly enough, I shot only slightly fewer this season than last season.
Woodcock do not conveniently obey the time restrictions of our shooting season. Weather conditions play a predominant role in migration patterns and that much at least we can draw from the experiences of this season. Given the second icy blast in the first week of February, I have little doubt there are now even more woodcock in the Celtic fringes. Woodcock can travel some incredible distances in a 24-hour period and, if the predicted arctic-like weather at the time of writing does materialise, more cock will move westwards. Thus, in such conditions the birds continue to come after the season has finished.
I have never been convinced by the accepted wisdom that all migrant woodcock are on their long-stay wintering grounds by December. This season has shown the opposite to be true, as a significant number of woodcock have stayed in their home regions of Scandinavia and Russia as a direct result of the hospitable weather conditions. However, given a late and protracted cold period, they will surely not stay there to starve.
Across the rest of the woodcock’s European wintering grounds it has been a mixed situation. In Brittany, throughout the season there have been few woodcock. In fact, so few that Dr Jean Paul Boidot, president of the European Woodcock Hunters’ Clubs, stopped shooting them after Christmas. This decision he described to me as being more to do with personal choice than the result of hard evidence of decline, for elsewhere in France there were high densities of birds.
Similarly, in Hungary, woodcock densities were high from November onwards. However, contacts in Turkey, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy reported a poor season. I have received mixed messages from readers and contacts in Ireland. Larry Taaffe, of the Woodcock Association of Ireland, was convinced that numbers were down, but this was not the view of Tony Kiernan on the west coast nor that of any other contacts in Donegal, Mayo and Connemara.
In Scotland, there were peaks and troughs as the woodcock came through, but headkeeper Michael MacKenzie’s overall assessment is that numbers were, in fact, down and that migration was at least a month behind on previous years. Even then, the big fall never occurred.
On the Welsh scene, numbers were lower than last year, but it was not a bad season. For many woodcock shooters in upland Wales, it was as good as ever. I was out with Owen Williams during the penultimate week of the season. We spent just a couple of hours in the late afternoon, before a planned teal flight that evening, working-up a small rough place in the hills of Ceredigion. There were woodcock in abundance.
The cold snap in late January certainly pushed more birds westwards but I still felt that numbers were not as they should have been. There is, I believe, an optimum number of woodcock one can expect to see on a per acre basis. In this context, while there were sufficient numbers of woodcock around, they were somewhere in the region of 70 per cent of the expected number of flushes. Herein lies the value of good record keeping. Looking back through my shooting diaries, it was interesting to see how consistent, for roughly the same date, the total number of woodcock flushed across each shooting place actually was. On this basis, it could be seen that numbers had been slightly down throughout the season.
However, as predicted, there was a final flurry of activity in the dying days of the season. From the western regions I received many positive reports of increased activity. In the Vale of Glamorgan, the Merthyr Mawr shoot had certainly received an injection of woodcock. On 25 January, they flushed 42 woodcock for 12 shot. In west Wales matters had improved for Mike Sherman and, in fact, turned an otherwise poor season on its head. He reported: More birds about definitely. Flushing up to 40 a day. That cold snap moved them in to us. Woodcock everywhere in the last three days of the season. An elated Louie O’Donovan declared: Plenty of woodcock.
The theory of woodcock staying at higher altitudes makes sense. On 29 January, out high in the hills, the cover was gorse and bracken. They only flew short distances before pitching in again. There was a recent fall of birds.As for my efforts, as to be expected, I was busy during the last days of the season. It was clear that a major shift of birds had taken place, but numbers were still fewer than I would have expected. On the last day of the season, accompanied by fellow ST contributors Mark Hinge and Owen Williams, we shot a place that had been rested for five weeks. There were only half the woodcock in residence that I would have expected havingshot there for the past 15 years. However, we had a great day with more birds missed than shot.
An additional bonus was the fact that I shot my first ever shortbill (43mm), and what a delightful, dainty bird it was. From the few I have handled, they appear to be smaller birds than normal. Over in Ireland, woodcock arrived in numbers during the last week of the season. “Cock Robin”, in the south west, reported: The shooting improved dramatically. We were flushing upwards of 25 woodcock in a day towards the end. Also, a ringed bird in Mayo, which originated from Helsinki.
In Scotland, Michael MacKenzie, at Eilean Iarmain, finished on a high note, woodcock and weather-wise: On the last two days of the season we had a wander about with three Guns. On 30 January, we saw 25-plus woodcock on a day of high winds and driving rain. On 31 January, with temperatures of 12°C and glorious sunshine, we saw 22 woodcock a lovely way to finish the season. In general, I think woodcock numbers were behind on previous years.
Another headkeeper, Mike Appleby, of the Honeycombe shoot, in south-west England, also had a productive end to the season: On one drive, we saw 18 and then moved to areas where those birds could not possibly have gone. We saw seven or eight on each drive thereafter. The areas where we have worked to attract and hold woodcock held the most. Mike went on to say: Over the past 10 days of the season, of which we shot nine, we covered a lot of different areas and we saw a lot of woodcock. They had arrived in the same numbers as we had seen last year
There we have it, the end to a particularly worrying season. I have often wondered whether the genetic urge to migrate was, in fact, stronger than the physical need to do so as a result of prevailing weather conditions on the breeding grounds. Dare I suggest that this season shows it not to be the case. While it is difficult to provide evidence that weather patterns ensured significant numbers of woodcock remained in their home regions, we have evidence of this from Russia and Scandinavia. It is a worrying fact that climate change is having such a rapid effect on migration patterns. I appeal to all ST readers to contact me with two pieces of information. First, how many woodcock did you see or flush during the 2006/2007 season? Second, how many did you see or flush in the 2005/2006 season?
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