It is a bit difficult even for me to think about woodcock at the moment. Writing this in the second week of October, during summer-like weather with daytime temperatures of 62˚F and night-time “lows” of 50˚F, it was something of a jolt to realise that the first reported migrant woodcock last season arrived on 3 October. That must have been a particularly eager bird or perhaps a British-bred woodcock undertaking the compulsory internal shift. After that initial spurt, there was barely a bird about until November and subsequently notable variances across the region in terms of abundance.

Late arrivals

The winter months of 2006 to 2007 were incredibly mild and did not revert to snow and ice until around the fourth week in January, when sport immediately improved in the western fringes but also at some east coast venues in both England and Scotland. At the end of the first week of February, I shared my view that, given the change in weather patterns in Scandinavia and the UK, more woodcock would arrive. This they certainly did. For the period 27 to 30 January, I was informed by contacts in Scotland of memorable double- figure days. From the south east of Scotland Cocker reported red letter days, with “cracking falls of cock” and “36 for 70 or 80 seen over a relatively small area”. From the west coast of Ireland, a reliable informant to the broadcast told me in mid-February of “vast numbers of woodcock the most we have seen in the past 30 years.” Here in Wales, there were also positive reports of more and more woodcock arriving in February. For the late arrivals it was a short stay on the wintering grounds ? the majority were on their way back to the breeding grounds in Scandinavia and north west Russia by the end of March.

Far and wide

One thing is clear. Given the scarcity of woodcock in north-west France and the relatively good if somewhat late numbers of woodcock in the British Isles, my French woodcock contacts in the French Game Department (ONCFS) are suggesting that last season the choice of wintering grounds shifted in a northerly direction. Woodcock were found in high densities in Norway and Sweden in December. It should be noted that this is an educated guess, but one based on 20 years of research on woodcock and their migration. My source on this, Dr Yves Ferrand, is the accepted leading expert on the European woodcock. Currently he is in north-west Russia netting woodcock to ascertain the success or otherwise of this year’s breeding. Having accompanied him in December 2007 on a similar expedition in Brittany, I am full of admiration and quite some envy. The icing on the cake is that he also hunts woodcock.

The French woodcock team has already been in Russia and Scandinavia once this year. In June they were counting the number of roding males and assessing chick survival. From these activities they tell me that the breeding season was average. Weather conditions were similar to those of 2006, in that the late-spring was again dry. The number of roding males was higher the previous years, however, and while this could indicate a good survival rate of breeding males, it could also mean fewer females or higher brood failure. It was also noticed by their Russian colleagues that there was a slight shift to earlier nesting as compared with past studies. Overall, the team is not that concerned merely exercising caution until it can add the information from this month’s netting exercise.

United front

There have been other things hatching on the woodcock front this summer. Due to the fact that the Welsh Woodcock Club (WWC) is a member of the European Federation of Woodcock Hunting Clubs (FANBPO), we were notified of the re-emergence of an EU Draft Woodcock Management Plan 2007-2009. The first version appeared in 2006 and was swiftly responded to by FANBPO members and the WWC, which worked in conjunction with John Harradine of BASC and was supported by Mike Swan at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Unfortunately, it reared its ugly head again in June this year. Once again, John and I collaborated on our respective responses and fed them through the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation (FACE – Europe).

The less than objective starting point for this plan is that woodcock have an unfavourable conservation status in the EU and Europe.

In addition, it also states that woodcock have a “depleted status” in the EU and are in decline in Russia and the UK. In a parallel universe fashion, the authors also suggest an estimated breeding population of between 1.8million to 8million pairs and a European wintering population of 10million to 25million. Not exactly precise or scientific! As could be expected, this is a weighty tombstone of a document. It contains far too much detail to be discussed at length here. However, to give you an idea of what is going on and to spur you into action I will deal with some of the objectives to be achieved.

What’s the plan?

The short-term objectives outlined in the draft plan focus upon the improvement of both breeding and wintering habitats, the implementation and consolidation of sustainable hunting practices and the development of research activities and monitoring. In a classic cart-before-the-horse manner, research and monitoring come last. Objectively and sensibly they should come first in order to inform scientifically any decisions. In among the 11 results to be achieved we find (5) Delineation of specific hunting free reserves and (6) Bag limitation is set in all member states. There are some measures which we can and do support. These were: an assessment of the impact of woodcock hunting during the breeding season (the plan did not actually go as far as to call for a ban on this practice); more research on breeding and wintering ecology; national bag statistics and increased ringing activities.

The draft EU Woodcock Management Plan 2007-2009 is a flawed document, based on the selective usage of evidence to support the plan, while largely ignoring the counter evidence. There is not a shred of hard evidence to show that woodcock are in fact in decline. The plan fails to make effective use of the counter arguments or research. Evidence suggests woodcock numbers to be stable and probably on the increase. The plan fails to produce evidence to support its assertion that the woodcock has unfavourable conservation status. The fact is that there is so little research taking place on woodcock that it is impossible to make an objective overall assessment. The proposed management plan must draw upon the long-term evidence and statistical analysis recorded by the Club National de Becassiers (France). It must also draw upon the evidence of member hunting clubs of the Federation Des Associations Nationales des Becassiers du Paléartique Occidental (FANBPO). Also, it must recognise, support and draw upon the activities of other national organisations.

There are some aspects of the EU management plan that I do support. These include: It is unacceptable to shoot woodcock during the spring migration and breeding season/period. In answer to this, I suggest the hunting season for woodcock, across member states, is the same. Other results include: more carefully thought through research is required; bag statistics should be collected and analysed; and the process of training and licensing authorised ringers must be rationalised and simplified.

Overall, the woodcock cannot simply be considered to have “unfavourable conservation status”. It must be shown through scientific data that this is indeed the case. The plan contradicts itself in several places in relation to population numbers. The evidence that suggests numbers are stable cannot simply be ignored in order to support some self-fulfilling prophecy, neither can non-scientific non-factual statements, such as “may have declined” be used in formatting an effective management plan.I would ask readers to contact MEPs and ask them to keep an eye on these developments. Ask for a copy of the plan. If you are not a member of one of our sporting organisations, join today. Your sport will most surely be depleted and regulated if you take no action and it serves you right if you remain apathetic.

It was interesting to note in the acknowledgements input from the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology. I assume that BASC and the WWC’s responses were included under FACE – Europe.

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