The Woodcock Broadcast is five years old this season. In those five years, I have never received so many reports of newly arrived woodcock from so many different parts of the British Isles and regions of Europe this early in the season. October was very good. This year, woodcock were not only early, but widespread in some numbers across France, the British Isles, Ireland, Greece and Italy.
It has become clear that the 2007 breeding season was a productive one and that survival rates were high. Yves Ferrand,
the French Game Department scientist, contacted me in early October to report: Just come back from Russia. The numbers of woodcock we observed were good.Russian colleagues tell us that breeding numbers were higher than past years. The ratio of juveniles ringed by us is around 80 per cent and that is high?
Russian contacts also pointed out that the first wave of migratory woodcock reached St Petersburg by early October. By the end of October they reported that migration was over for central Russia and north-west Russia.
So there are three significant differences this year: first, a high number of woodcock were observed during and after the breeding season; second, they were on the move at exactly the time we would expect them to start their migration; third, numbers arriving in October appear to be far higher than those normally expected.
It was not unexpected that the first sightings of migrant woodcock in England came from the Holkham estate in Norfolk, whereSimon Lester witnessed new arrivals in the week commencing 15 October. Further north, in Staffordshire, Steve Cooper saw his first woodcock on 20 October: Small dark birds got up four times in front of us as we worked a hedge. This is very early for us.
On the Honeycombe shoot, in Dorset, headkeeper Mike Appleby reported his first woodcock of the season on 21 October and a couple more four days later. On 22 October, I was a member of a party of Guns shooting at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire. On the third drive of the day, the Piggery, a shout of woodcock went up from the beaters and out it came framed by two pheasants on each side. While the pheasants continued on their straight line over the Guns two of which were despatched by yours truly and my neighbour the woodcock knew exactly what to do. It swerved across the front of the Guns, kept low on the edge of the wood and used the light and shade of the background to full effect.
During the week commencing 22 October, reports came in from Ian Brown, keeper at Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, from Chris Trewitt, our off-shore gas platform woodcock spotter and Captain Barry Fudge of the Okehampton shoot in Devon. As November came, more reports told of more woodcock arriving. Again the Okehampton lads were seeing woodcock: 7 November, small walk-round after work party in the morning. Flushed three, one shot and saw eight at dusk.
The number of shooting enthusiasts who go out woodcock spotting at dusk is growing and Mike Appleby reported: I stayed in the yard by the house tonight as it is a favourite place for woodcock to fly over as dusk sets. I counted six fly by me before it got too dark to see. All were heading in the same direction and coming from an area within the wood where we have done a lot of coppicing.
A very rewarding sight.
This is great news, as Mike and his team have put in a lot of hard work to improve the habitat to encourage woodcock to linger. Be warned, however. This dusk spotting of woodcock can be quite addictive, as Lee Jones and Louie O’Donovan (Doldowod shoot) testify. For my part, I now frequently join the south west’s most avid spotter, Lyn Murley, on his four-times-a-week jaunts to assess local woodcock numbers.
Mike Sherman, in Pembrokeshire, reported the first sighting on 11 October and confirmed a steady stream of reports from 20 October onwards, as several shoots had their first boundary days. Up in Mid-Wales, Louie O’Donovan and Harry Hughes saw their first woodcock on high ground on 24 October. On 27 October, members of the Mynydd y Cerrig shoot were also seeing woodcock. On 28 October, Lyn Murley and his son, Oliver, were dusk spotting in Mid-Wales and what a half-hour they had. They saw 14 woodcock, including a group of four and two sets of pairs. The following evening, I joined them and we saw six including two pairs and two singles.
Mike and Maverick Sherman had a walk around on 29 October. They flushed three for two shot and decided to stay on to see
how many flighted at dusk: Instead of flighting the foreshore as planned, we stayed on. We saw 12 woodcock. On the same day, Louie O’Donovan reported more sightings from across Mid-Wales. By 3 November, it was clear that a lot of woodcock had undertaken a particularly early journey to Wales. Roger Evans from south-west Wales is one of the truest sportsmen I know. He reported on 3 November: Flushed four woodcock on our little shoot, some say five, and managed to bag two.
I had my first serious day out on 3 November, starting at 10am. I had not seen a woodcock by 1pm. I moved to higher ground in the afternoon, to gorse banks high up on the hillsides, on the edge of the heather. I flushed three and shot three in 30 minutes. I flushed a further four which I let fly on unsaluted. I chose to watch and let them fly rather than simply add more to the bag. All of these were well-rested and flew fit and fast. Around this time, Louie O’Donovan and Lee Jones waited at dusk to count flighting woodcock and saw seven. The previous three nights they had seen two, four and 12 respectively. On 11 November, Roger Evans reported: Woodcock numbers seem to be at reasonable levels across the south-west counties. I have observed good numbers at flight time. Recently I have counted 18 and 21 in separate evenings.
Being the sportsman he is, Roger added: On shooting days the ones I handled were all juveniles and though flying strongly were a little thin. I am therefore keeping my gun down for a week or so to allow them time to build up some more flesh and strength? a purely personal decision. By 10 November, better reports were emerging of more woodcock. On that day, Eifion Williams of the Penrice shoot, Glamorgan, reported 18 seen and six shot. Williams, Williams Junior and Jones were also among the woodcock on the same day. On the Camddwr shoot, North Wales, Mr M. Williams reported: Woodcock are around in larger numbers (only saw six on 3 November) as we flushed 20 this Saturday, of which six were accounted for. One of these was my first of the season.
There were some early arrivals in Scotland also and Michael MacKenzie of Fearann Eilean Iarmain, Isle of Skye, reported his first on 16 October. From the south east of Scotland Cocker reported a sprinkling of migrants turning up on the grouse moors. Overall, early to mid-October appears to have been relatively quiet in Scotland. Towards the end of the month and into November, migration increased and numbers were building up. On 20 October, Rob Wainwright on the Isle of Coll flushed his first woodcock of the season. By 27 October, I was receiving reports of migrants fluttering 15 to 20 yards and dropping in again from the Black Isle. Back on the Isle of Skye, an early pheasant day on 2 November managed to flush more than 14 woodcock. By 12 November, Michael MacKenzie at Eilean Iarmain was seeing many more: Seeing 25 to 30 per day over the past two day’s shooting.
The woodcock season does not commence here until 1 November. There were a few reports for October and the first days of November, however. Dave Egan, from County Clare, confirmed: The news from here is good. I have heard of sightings from five different people, all have seen woodcock. The signs are promising. Cock Robin in the south west also reported multiple sightings. In mid-Ireland mixed messages were received from Brian Conlon and John Bourke. Brian reported: First day out 9 November had a good enough day’s work, flushed nine and bagged six. Reports from elsewhere are of patchy numbers.
John Bourke was obviously in one of the patchy numbers areas:So far (11 November) sightings are very patchy and I have only seen three. One in someone else’s bag and the other two in flight.
My first report this year came from Tom Mpatselas in northern Greece. Around 10 October, the cold weather arrived in his part of the country and with it came woodcock. On 14 October, he took his first of the season. My Breton friend, Dr Jean Paul Boidot, of the Club Nationale de Beccassiers, tells me that in a normal year the first migratory woodcock are usually seen in Brittany around 20 October. This year migrant birds were seen in the first days of October. This was also true for other regions of France. My contacts in Italy, Bulgaria and Greece have also reported a good start to the season.
It is with a huge sigh of relief that I can say that we have had a far better start than last year. The indications are of numbers picking up through the first weeks of November, with the next milestone on the full moon on 24 November. Currently, north-west Russia and Scandinavia are experiencing exactly the right sort of weather we need to see a full-blown migratory wave descend upon the British Isles. If this happens, please do remember these magnificent birds are not commodities. They are a wonderful wild resource that we should harvest and enjoy in a sensible fashion.
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