A debate on a petition to limit the shooting season for woodcock took place in Westminster Hall on the 27th Febuary 2023. MPs from across the house took part, and the majority’s feelings were clear: why, they wondered, are we wasting time debating this. Ahead of the debate the Countryside Alliance provided a briefing note to all MPs that was quoted several times during proceedings.
The petitions official aim, cooked up by Chris Packham Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery, was formally to push back the season start from 1 Oct to 1 December. But its clear, knowing their tactics, that the real aim was to create a slow march to an outright ban. There is currently a resident British population of 55,000 male woodcock in spring, equating to about 180,000 individuals in autumn when the UK hosts 1.4 million winter migrants , with peak arrival during November and departure in late March. The winter migrant population is increasing.
For obvious reasons woodcock have traditionally been shot after the main body of migrants arrive and there is now voluntary restraint in place for woodcock not to be shot before 1 December. There is no evidence that any significant harvest of birds is being taken before that date and no evidence that shooting is the cause for the decline in our resident population. Given that shooting does not take place to any significant degree before 1 December and the current harvest of migrant woodcock is clearly sustainable, there is no need for regulatory change. Any action should be focussed on improving habitat for breeding woodcock.
Quoting our briefing during the debate itself, Sir Robert Goodwill, Sir Bill Wiggin, Jim Shannon MP, David Simmonds MP and Greg Smith MP all made the above points, as well as focusing on the real issue: habitat.
The preferred breeding habitat of woodcock is deciduous or mixed woodland, but conifer plantations are used up to the thicket stage, as are large patches of bracken in upland areas. Wide rides and small clearings (1-3 hectares) in large woodlands provide easy access and flight paths, and an understorey of brambles, hazel, holly or bracken is important, to provide cover from avian predators. Woodcock were rare or absent as breeding birds until about 1850, but by 1930 they were breeding in practically every mainland British county. The initial increase was probably due to the extensive planting of woods managed for pheasant shooting. It continued with the planting of large conifer forests in the 1950s and 1960s across Scotland, Wales and East Anglia.
GWCT research highlights that the main reason for their decline is a change in their habitat, which has had numerous causes. The maturity of planted woodland is seen as being the largest contributor; rising deer numbers are also of concern, due to their excessive browsing of vegetation, young shrubs and sapling trees. This is fragmentating woodlands and changing their structure.
If there was one clear call that came out of the debate, it was the need for updated research and data. The GWCT is currently conducting a pioneering tagging project to understand woodcock migration better (Woodcock Watch).
At the end of the debate, Environment Minister Trudy Harrison concluded that “Natural England will be making recommendations based on the science”. If it does so, no regulatory change can be expected because it cannot be supported by the evidence – but that hasn’t stopped Wild Justice before, and it won’t now.
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28 Feb 2023 by James W Aris