By this time of year my personal countdown has started and the compulsion to weather-watch across Scandinavia and north-west Russia is simply too strong to ignore. My moon-gazing sessions change from utter amazement of that essential satellite towards a focus of another kind.
Despite what the cynics claim, I will always connect the full moon with the arrival of woodcock. At the start of October I assumed a brief nightly vigil of watching the moon turn through its phases towards a full moon on 5 October. On the evening of 2 October it was a sight to behold in the clear night sky not simply a huge planetary orb, but a beacon for woodcock and woodcock shooters.
On the morning of 3 October, a thoroughly exhausted woodcock was caught and released by a friend of a friend. A woodcock enthusiast, he was walking his springer beside the Millennium Footpath, in Llanelli. The dog plunged into the path side cover and popped out with a tired woodcock in its mouth. This bird was released unharmed. A “pathfinder woodcock”, as Colin McKelvie would describe it.
As we look forward to the 2006/07 season, it is heartening to consider the trends over the past five years or so. Since the start of the new millennium we have enjoyed some exceptional seasons. A trawl of reliable contacts across the British Isles and Ireland shows that the majority of woodcock enthusiasts are convinced that numbers have increased or, at worst, are high. This opinion finds some resonance with the woodcock boffins based in France and Russia.
Yves Ferrand, of the National Game Department (ONCFS), in France, believes numbers are stable and possibly on the increase, but, ever-cautious, draws attention to how vulnerable the species is to the vagaries of the weather, especially during breeding season. In our pre-season correspondence focusing upon reproductive success across north-west Russia and Scandinavia, his assessment was for an average to poor shooting season in 2006/07. This estimation is based upon information supplied him by Russian colleagues in the collaborative French/Russian woodcock research team.
“In north-west Russia, the spring and summer were not favourable for breeding. Little snow last winter resulted in dry forests. Spring was cold and summer very dry. In central Russia, conditions were more favourable: abundant snow last winter meant damp conditions and the second part of the breeding season was hot and wet. During a visit in June, however, we did not see any mosquitoes in some forests, which is surprising and unusual. In Scandinavia, spring was delayed and cold; June and July were not too hot. The picture is confusing, though, because in early September our Russian colleagues are finding high numbers of woodcock.
“We aren’t optimistic this season, but could be wrong. I hope so!” It is rather a dismal picture painted by Yves, but he has never been far wrong in his assessments for the broadcast over the past five years. He not only shares my passion for woodcock, but also my passion for hunting them. We can be certain of one thing: contributors to the Woodcock Broadcast will soon let us know if he got it right.
The Woodcock Broadcast has exceeded my expectations. It was a relief to show that there were many avid enthusiasts out there absorbing all manner of information appertaining to woodcock. This network of contacts has expanded our collective knowledge of wintering woodcock in the British Isles. Moreover, contributors from across Europe have enlarged our awareness of just how important are the environment and weather patterns. We are left to ponder what effects climate change will have on migratory woodcock. Will they continue to come? Will they reproduce in sufficient numbers?
While the broadcast is simply a snapshot of what is happening in terms of winter woodcock, it has helped develop an increased interest in woodcock and has resulted directly in the formation of the Welsh Woodcock Club (WWC) and, indirectly, in the formation of the new Irish Woodcock Club, through the sterling efforts of Larry Taaffe.
These have been exciting and crucial developments. The region that gave the world the cocker spaniel now has two national clubs, both of which are affiliated to the European Federation of Woodcock Clubs (FANBPO). While the Irish Club has yet to experience its first full season, its sister organisation in Wales already has one full season of information gathering under its belt. Members of the WWC are supplied with data-collection forms upon which they record monthly details of numbers seen, numbers shot, weather conditions, type of habitat, altitude, region and any injuries or abnormalities. Members are also encouraged to age their birds and this season will be issued with a glossy Key to ageing woodcock booklet, produced for us by our French counterparts, the Club Nationale de Becassiers (CNB).
I had often wondered why the French seemed to get more short bills and more examples of extremes of plumage variation in their woodcock. It could be explained by the simple fact that more birds winter in France than do in the British Isles. The other partial explanation, however, is that we have never had this type of club, with an efficient reporting-back network. Thankfully, Shooting Times was willing and able to support this initiative. Last season I received a wealth of information on short bills, injuries, white-winged birds and ringing recoveries. It would appear that woodcock enthusiasts across the UK and Ireland simply needed a mechanism by which to share their knowledge. I’m grateful in particular to keeper Ray Williams, who sent me a woodcock with a bill measuring just 41mm. With the characteristic crinkle in its upper mandible, it sits atop my bookcase, watching over my endeavours to learn more about its kind.
I have nothing but admiration for the joint CNB/ONCFS research and information-gathering programme in France. Collectively, they produce some fascinating details on woodcock reproduction rates, age profiles and migration. During winter 2005/2006 they ringed 4,500 woodcock across the French regions, showed an age ratio of 65 per cent juveniles to 35 per cent adults via their ageing activities (through the CNB) and concluded it had been another excellent season. Recoveries of ringed birds in 2005/06 also give some indication of how far they migrate, how loyal they are to particular wintering regions, regional shifts during the winter and potential longevity.
For example, several birds ringed in the spring of 2004/2005 were recovered in the same district in 2005/06, having returned to the breeding grounds and back again. Woodcock that had been ringed in north-west Russia via the Franco-Russian initiative turned up in Brittany, while CNB/ONCFS-ringed birds were recovered in the Azores, Spain, Ireland and Morocco. One bird, ringed in Holland on 7 November 2005, was recovered 13 days later in the south of France, having covered 389 miles. From this sample of ring recoveries, the three oldest birds were at least five, six and seven years old but then we don’t know exactly how old they were when first ringed. John Bourke, one of our enthusiastic respondents, picked-up a bird in 2005 in the Irish midlands that had been ringed near Leningrad two years earlier. This is the second such woodcock ringed in that part of Russia to turn up in the south west. The first was recovered by Peter Jones, in Carmarthenshire. Was it on its way to Ireland? We shan’t know unless we do something positive about it.
As far as I am aware there is no dedicated ringing programme of woodcock anywhere in the British Isles, including Ireland. To do our bit, the Welsh Woodcock Club intends to undertake a ringing programme as soon as possible but first we need to obtain a permit from the BTO. To do so, we need to be trained by an authorised BTO ringer and eventually confirmed as competent to undertake the task. The one small problem we have is a distinct lack of BTO-authorised ringers, it appears, anywhere in the south west of Wales. The BTO cannot find anyone to train us, but I’ll bet a woodcock’s pinfeather to a pound of grapeshot that one of our broadcast readers can.
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