All kinds of gloomy press releases have coincided with the first fall of woodcock, and the GWCT now recommend that no shooting should take place until the Scandinavian birds have arrived in a bid to protect native British birds, which have been in steep decline for the past few years. At this, some of my shooting pals have panicked and vowed not to shoot a single woodcock ever again, while others have shrugged and claimed that shooting one or two makes no difference anyway.
What’s clear is that in many cases, shooting is not always the friend to woodcock we think it is. The culture of modern sport often treats the birds as a seasonal bonus – something that can never be banked upon, but an occasional edge of variety on a day at the pheasants. Indeed, many people don’t go the extra mile for woodcock conservation “because they don’t really breed here anyway”, and to the more practically-minded, you have no assurances that they would be present on a shoot day even if they did. In fairness, it’s difficult to quantify the impact you’re making on the bag by conserving the species when the nation is flooded with up to a million scandinavian birds each winter.
This hands-off approach was not always the case, and tales of Victorian and Edwardian woodcock shoots cast light on the days when real hard management work was put in to conserve woodcock for the bag. There are still some excellent shoots which put a management focus on woodcock, but how many of the big commercial shoots do anything for this enigmatic species outwith the shooting season? Most guns seem to forget the species altogether when Spring comes round, secure in the knowledge that they’ll be back next winter, whether they bred in this country or not. A very keen shooting friend showed his hand recently when he admitted that he didn’t know that any woodcock stayed to breed in Britain at all, and yet he is always first to jump at the chance of day’s sport.
Quite apart from the fact that the woodcock is one of the loveliest, most enchanting wild birds in the country, shooting has to step up and take responsibility for our own breeding birds. If we allow them to fall off the radar and receive the official stamp of “legal protection”, we not only lose an extremely significant piece of sporting culture, but we also lose the real drive and purpose of shooting itself. What would be the point in a sport based entirely on released birds? It would be a sad husk of its original self, without any ties to the thrilling, mercurial concept that careful land management might be repaid by a surplus of wild game.
The powerful but ever more anachronistic quote from George VI in the Shooting Times each week reads: “The wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we please. We have it in trust. We must account for it to those who come after“. I have “come after” George VI, and I have found the wildlife of his day disposed of with scarcely a shrug. I would like to bring his generation of farmers, sportsmen and landowners to account for what happened on their watch, but what would be the point? The best I can hope for is to keep hold of the little we still have, and woodcock represent one of the most valuable fragments.
We have a fairly reliable breeding population of woodcock in Dumfries and Galloway, and the Western end of the county is one of the best areas to shoot in winter, particularly when it’s cold in the East and birds start to move over to Ireland for muddier, milder climes. I will hope to shoot a bird or two on the Chayne this winter, but I do so with confidence because so much of the planting and forest redesign work I’ve carried out for black grouse has boosted breeding woodcock to the extent that they are relatively common in the summer. It is one of my only success stories after almost seven years of hard work. The French have a nice saying about wine which applies equally well to our woodcock – “Sachez consommer et apprécier avec modération“.
There is no alternative to hard graft and dedication when it comes to protecting and sustaining our own breeding birds in the summer. The shooting season represents a tiny fraction of the year’s story, and we usher the woodcock out of sight at our peril.