The woodcock have arrived, and though the reports on the breeding season are good, I have a nagging doubt that all is not right somehow. In fact, except for one or two particular areas, migration to the winter grounds is rather slow this year. In late-October it looked as though it would be the second October ever that I had not seen a woodcock. All was saved, however, when I was out woodcock watching at dusk on 31 October, and I saw my very first woodcock of the season.

Absolutely brilliant. At this particular place they only spot me at the last moment, so I get to see them close up. Since then, things have improved only marginally and, as I write in mid-November, there do not appear to have been any large falls anywhere across the British Isles or Ireland. To make matters worse, the south-westerly gales from 9 to 10 November will not have helped matters, coming as they did just before the full moon on 13 November.

What we really need are northerlies and easterlies to help the woodcock zip over the North Sea. However, as is often apparent, the North Sea route is only one of two main migratory routes that woodcock use. The other tends towards a more south-westerly plane and the birds seem to follow the land mass of Continental Europe towards the west and north west. From ringed bird recoveries that I have studied, there is clearly a migration line that runs from north-west Russia through the southern half of England, through south-west Wales and on to the east and west coasts of the Irish Republic.

I have received some positive reports via the French and Russian woodcock study team. The predictions are for an average season but that migration will probably take place over an extended period. This rings true in relation to my earlier concerns that things are a bit slow on the migration front.

From the ringing operation carried out in late-October, the ratio of juveniles to adults is favourable. In north-west Russia, 66 per cent of woodcock netted and ringed were juveniles, while in central Russia the ratio of juveniles was higher, at around 70 per cent.

These are not bad ratios and indicate a successful breeding season. However, yet again this season there are exceptionally mild weather conditions in Russia and across Scandinavia. Be aware also that it is the young birds and the females that arrive here first.

England

Those who know how keen a woodcock man Mike Swan is will not be surprised by the fact that he was on the ball in relation to woodcock movements this season: “Shot on 25 October; spotted two woodcock. Migratory fowl are rather scarce in the south east, so perhaps it’s a late migration of duck and woodcock for weather-related reasons.”

Further north, in Derbyshire, Charles Fearn reported arrivals of migrant woodcock on 29 October, but not in great numbers. Barry Fudge, captain of the Okehampton woodcock club returned a more upbeat report: “On 5 November we had a work party out. In the evening, in 20 minutes we saw 10, which is good for this time of year.”

In communication with Andrew Hoodless around this time, it was clear that a pattern of low numbers was emerging and he expressed his concerns to me: “Have you seen many woodcock yet (7 November)? There don’t seem to be many in Hampshire. Talking to keepers, the general impression is that they’re late this year.”

Later on, Charles Fearn shot his first woodcock of the season on 11 November: “Out today, I saw four; other Guns confirmed that more were seen. I managed one at 290g — it looked like a recent arrival.”

Wales

Friday 31 October and Saturday 1 November were significant days across Wales, as many people saw and some even shot their first woodcock of the season. On 1 November, I was out after woodcock, but having spent every evening of the preceding week standing at dusk to see only one bird, I was not expecting much sport. As suspected, it turned out this way — one woodcock seen for one shot. It was a great day, however, as this woodcock was the first ever to be flushed by Ruby, a lovely little sprocker.

On the evening of 1 November, Lyn Murley was out woodcock watching and with Damian Mann witnessed six woodcock flighting at the same time, in two groups of three. Also on the 1st, the Camddwr shoot had its first walkabout and Mike Morris shot his first of the season for five seen. The Garreg shoot in mid-Wales also saw five cock on its first day. Roger Evans, executive committee member of the Welsh Woodcock Club (WWC), was out on the 1st on his club shoot and flushed 10 for three shot.

While woodcock watching on 4 November, I saw four, including a pair that came across my front very close to me. What a sight they were. On the 5th I saw three including another pair.

For the week 1 to 8 November, five members of the WWC were out woodcock watching almost every evening for very few birds seen. On Saturday 8 November, Oliver West saw three for one shot and I saw five for none shot while beating on a local estate.

Ireland

The first report from Ireland this season came from Dave Egan, in County Clare. Out on the first day of the Irish woodcock shooting season, 1 November, he shot his first bird at 8am. Up in Northern Ireland, in County Londonderry, “Quinner” had his first day on the 7th and reported: “Heavy showers with occasional clear spells. Rose eight including a pair for two shot. Small falls in the north west of Northern Ireland. Four shot on the shoot next door.”

On the west coast of Ireland, in Connemara, Patrick O’Flaherty was seeing more woodcock: “Two friends had nine for three hours on Sunday 9 November.”

In the Midlands of Ireland, woodcock enthusiast John Bourke had this news for readers: “Not a lot to report. I’ve only seen one. Other Guns are meeting the odd bird but only a trickle so far. With the full moon on 13 November and favourable winds from the east, things ought to improve considerably.”

Scotland

It would appear that Scotland also is yet to experience any sizeable falls of woodcock. Headkeeper Michael MacKenzie at Eilean Iarmain on the Isle of Skye had received news of recent arrivals in Caithness and the Black Isle on the weekend of 18 October, but was pessimistic as, shortly after, Scotland was battered by westerly gales. However, Michael saw his first woodcock on 31 October, which was clearly a new arrival.

Over on the east coast, surprisingly, my sources were seeing very few woodcock at all. “Cocker” in the north east of Scotland had only seen one and heard of few. By 7 November I received reports of far more woodcock arriving on Islay and this is encouraging.

On Monday 10 and Tuesday 11 November, Michael MacKenzie saw a handful of woodcock, but affirmed: “A few more are about, but I would not say we have a lot on Skye. Hopefully, the full moon this week will help.”

Woodcock abroad

In north-west France, woodcock turned up relatively early this season. From the Morbihan region, Dr Jean Paul Boidot saw his first woodcock on 18 October and shot his first of the season on the 19th. However, since that time, the migration has slowed up significantly and there is a distinct absence of woodcock to date. This trend was also confirmed for me by Dr Yves Ferrand of the French Game and Wildlife Department.

The Kastoria region of Greece had a better start to the season. Tom Mpatselas told me: “The first small wave of migration arrived at the end of September. Throughout October, I heard messages of woodcock from all over northern Greece. Weather is very, very dry in this region and birds are moving on. For November, so far the season is turning out to be normal, as is to be expected with usual numbers. We are not worried.”

Conclusion

It’s been a slow start to the season but across my range of informants and respondents — some are hunters, some scientists, some both — there are no real concerns. The breeding season appears to have been a good one, there are high ratios of juveniles to adults and now we must wait to see whether there are suitable weather conditions across Fennoscandia and Russia. I am more concerned with what we, the shooting community, do when the birds do arrive as they most surely will. I make no apology for what has become my mantra. Treat woodcock as the precious wild resource they surely are, by harvesting them in sensible numbers. They provide us with fantastic sport in spectacular surroundings. We must respect this and value our sport with woodcock.

Keep us updated with all your news on woodcock, email stwoodcock@ipcmedia.com.