Habitat loss due to the increasing fragmentation of woodland is likely to be behind the decline in woodcock numbers throughout Ireland and Britain, according to the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Surveys carried out in 2003 and 2013 showed a 29% decline in resident breeding woodcock, with the number of males falling from 78,350 to 55,240 within the ten year period.

However, a GWCT survey of shoots in 2017/2018 also showed that shooting pressure has reduced following the group’s advisement to postpone the activity until December 1, when migrant woodcock have arrived from Europe.

The British isles see an influx of 1.3 million migrant woodcock every year, from breeding grounds in Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Baltic states and Russia.

The organisation has published a new conservation guide following 50 years of research on how to provide the varied habitat that the birds require.

Image: Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

The publication comes as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been encouraged to consider a legal ban on the shooting of woodcock until after November 30, each year.

However, the authors of the report have argued that a legal change to the starting date of the shooting season would likely be ineffective until more data on woodcock numbers are available.

The GWCT added that it hopes to carry out more research in conjunction with the British trust for Ornithology (BTO) next year to collect this information.

Dr. Andrew Hoodless, GWCT director of research and leading authority on woodcock, said “a repeat national breeding woodcock survey will provide an up-to-date population estimate and enable regional assessments of change in breeding woodcock numbers since the last survey in 2013”.

“It would be sensible to wait for the results before considering a statutory change to the woodcock season.

“Enforcing a shorter season now risks alienating them and impacting woodcock conservation efforts,” he added.

He stated that the trust’s research shows that the shooting of woodcock on a national scale is likely to be a small risk relative to other factors but remains important at a local level, and called on shooters to follow the guidelines outlined in the GWTC’s recent publication.