A slow October on the woodcock front. There were a number of reports of a trickle of woodcock into the British Isles, but no sizeable falls anywhere. Should we realistically expect significant numbers to arrive this early in the season? There are those who do not expect high densities until late-November, but are they correct in assuming so?
Over the past four years of the Woodcock Broadcast we have seen woodcock arrive in significant numbers on the September full moon. Each year we have witnessed reasonable numbers throughout most of October.
These September and October falls of woodcock are well-recorded since the start of the last century. In 1904, Richard J. Ussher, writing in L.H. De Visme Shaw’s book on woodcock, noted that the north- west coasts of Ireland were the first areas to record migrant woodcock every year, in September: Inishtrahull, the most northerly island in Ireland first, and then Donegal. In my part of the world, you can almost set your watch by the first arrivals on or around 23 October, but not this year.
Over the past four seasons, there have been more woodcock about at this time of the year than is the case at present. The two major factors at play here are the reproduction success rate and weather patterns. Given the increasingly mild autumns in Scandinavia and north-west Russia, we should not be too surprised that migration is later in the year. The ultimate question has to be whether the genetic impulse to migrate is strong enough to trigger migration, when weather conditions on the breeding grounds are as mild as they have been. By implication, if conditions remain mild and open then the woodcock’s main food source remains available and abundant, thereby negating the need to shift.
October was mild, wet and largely devoid of favourable north and easterly winds. This situation remained so throughout the month and gave rise to much concern among ST readers across the country. In fact, so few birds were spotted, it has become the worst start to a season in five years. However, things were due to change. In the week leading
up to 5 November, temperatures plummeted in Russia and Norway, with some snow. It was not until 1 November that I received my first positive reports of woodcock arriving on the east coast of England.
Despite evening visits to known flightpaths and several exploratory days with dogs, I did not, for the first time ever, see a woodcock in October. Two days after receiving a message from Norfolk that woodcock had been found resting in the dunes and sugar beet, I saw my first three woodcock on 4 November and shot two. Clearly, the cold snap on the breeding grounds gave the birds the urge to migrate, but there are not that many being reported.
Encouragingly, a further update from Yves Ferrand, from the French Game Department, confirmed, “While we were not optimistic for this hunting season, the first ringing results since our last communication are difficult to explain. On the one hand the results from north-west Russia are good. From 100 woodcock ringed, 80 per cent were juveniles. In central Russia, the results were poor, though we had expected them to be good. We must wait for more information from Russia. The first migrating woodcock in France were observed, as usual, in mid-October.”
Among the first reports of sightings in Wales was one from Mike, Mav and Connor Sherman in the south west of Wales, which showed that some woodcock had made the October trip. They reported, “Several woodcock were sighted yesterday evening (21 October) at flight-time not a large number but we saw four.”
Shooting Times chef Mark Hinge reported an absolute dearth of woodcock in the Vale
of Glamorgan. None was shot in October, and none was recorded across the Vale. The 3 November gave us the demarcation line between no woodcock or few woodcock, and more woodcock. By Monday 6 November, there were far more positive reports coming in. Mark Hinge said, “Wow, what an opening day. We saw 11 wooodcock, and my heart is still pumping at the speed of the birds. One was unusually light in colour. All were fit and extremely fast.”
Also, reports of more sightings were coming in from the Builth Wells area, where keeper’s son Lee Jones had seen quite a few. He said, “By Saturday 11 November, it was obvious that a small fall of woodcock had taken place in Wales. The Penrice syndicate saw seven on their driven day one was shot by Gun Rob Morgan.”
The old firm Williams, Williams, Jones and Co were, however, struggling, with only one seen and shot. In mid-Wales, Welsh Woodcock Club co-ordinators Owen Williams and Louie O’Donovan were reporting more woodcock than anywhere else in Wales. Owen Williams reported, “We saw six on an outside day on the Llanilar shoot and one was shot by Gun Tony Bevan, but we didn’t touch the more woodcock-orientated drives.” Over the years, we have had some amazing reports of woodcock sighted in some of the strangest places you could imagine from off-shore gas platforms to high streets in south-east England, but a report from Louie O’Donovan borders on the surreal. He said, “We were eating our lunch on one day in an open-ended barn, when a woodcock flew in one end, over our heads and out the other end.”
The situation in England mirrored that in Wales for October and early-November. Mike Appleby, headkeeper on the Honeycombe shoot, in Dorset, has worked hard at improving the habitat for woodcock and reported his first on 6 October. By 12 October, Gun Charles Fearn reported six woodcock being flushed from a small patch of rough grass. Chris Trewhift, working off-shore on a gas rig, also saw two woodcock resting on the helipad.
At Holkham estate, in Norfolk, there was little to report throughout October, but leading up to the November full moon matters improved. Headkeeper Simon Lester reported, on 3 November, “This week’s strong north wind and moon has brought the first notable amount of woodcock. We have not shot any coverts yet, so don’t know if they stayed or moved on.”
Mike Swan had to wait until 4 November before his spirits were lifted. He reported, “Two weeks ago there was no sign of woodcock. However, yesterday, we had an outside day and flushed five. Judging from what we saw without going into the main woods there must have been a substantial fall of woodcock before the full moon in this part of north-east Dorset.”
At Eilean Iarmain, on the Isle of Skye, headkeeper Michael MacKenzie’s assessment was, “For the first time in four years, I would say we never got a fall of woodcock on the October moon. We had three Guns out roughshooting on 1 to 3 November and only saw six woodcock. I’m hoping things are going to change this weekend given the favourable wind and full moon.” It was similar situation on the Isle of Coll. Rob Wainwright had a party of Guns for the last week of October. He reported, “The group of Guns had great sport but no woodcock about yet. There was a huge flow of other migrants, but bar a few possible roadside sightings, in headlights, no woodcock yet. I saw my first woodcock on 4 November. It was down by the shore looking very tired only just keeping ahead of the dog.”
Over the past four years or sothere have been fairly large and early falls of woodcock in Ireland. Historically, this followed the pattern of woodcock arriving on the north-west coast of Ireland first. It has always been supposed that these birds had used Scotland as their resting place en route from Scandinavia to Ireland. Thus, large and early falls are well recorded in County Donegal. However, up until 11 November, messages from respondents in Ireland of woodcock movement and sightings were mixed and confusing.
In the south west, “Cock Robin” had received reports of woodcock seen in mid-October.
It was not until the second week of November, though, after the commencement of the shooting season, that he reported, “They are here. I was out with another Gun for three hours today (11 November) and our first encounter was two birds flushed together under our feet. They went in different directions; the other Gun got the first but missed the second, which I then shot. We saw 10 on a small walk-around. Good reports from elsewhere.”
Larry Taaffe, secretary of the newly formed Woodcock Association of Ireland, noted, “There have been sightings of numbers of birds in the west of Ireland on 2 November. This is extremely early. Also, as a result of our summer census, it appears that woodcock are more prevalent in Ireland than I would have imagined.” This the picture of woodcock movement so far poor but improving. All we need now is a cold snap on the Continent, favourable winds and we should see more arrive.
Keep us updated with all your woodcock news, email STWoodcock@ipcmedia.com. For details on the ST Woodcock Club, visit www.shootingtimes.co.uk