Woodcock petition

Wild Justice petitioned Parliament that the opening of the Woodcock shooting season be pushed back to 1 December. Annually, 160,000 Woodcock are shot for sport across the UK whilst their population is declining. The Defra Secretary of State has powers to vary the shooting season. The petition received 107,916 signatures and the issue was debated in a committee room on 27 February (16:30 – 17:50). 9 MPs spoke, 4 generally in favour and 5 against, plus the Parliamentary Under Secretary.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary for Defra, Trudy Harrison said: The more abundant migratory woodcock population is unlikely to arrive in the UK until early December. Avoiding shooting the UK’s limited native resident breeding birds is really important. I do not think there is any dissent on that matter. The dissent is perhaps on whether to legislate on that. In response to this debate, I am working very closely with Natural England. It is currently reviewing all of the evidence, and we will make a science-led decision after they report.

Wild Justice seemed reasonably content with the results of the debate: that the minister was open to the idea, that it would be studied and that it was still a live issue, visible in the public arena.

The main outcome was that Defra intends to review the list of species, including woodcock, on Schedule 2 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 including the benefits of altering the close season.

Points made in the debate were:

  • voluntary restraint which the shooting lobby uses as the rationale for protection of the current season, may be highly ineffective, although greater than 97% compliance is claimed. In the Shooting Times there has been some open articles on the shooting of woodcock outside of the agreed season. Woodcock shooting days are advertised online for dates before December. As a comparable measure, the voluntary phase-out of the use of lead in ammunition within five years has shown no progress.
  • The shooting lobby argue that climate change, natural habitat shortage and a huge deer population are the main reasons for the decline in woodcock. The BTO state that the reasons for the decline are unclear but may include recreational disturbance, drying out of woodlands, increased browsing by deer, declining woodland management, and maturing of new plantations.
  • The figure of 160,000 shot is based on a 2012 estimate and is unreliable. A more accurate figure should be produced this year for the 2022 season and there is also a National Woodcock Survey.
  • Shooters provide invaluable conservation work in the form of research and improvements to the habitat for both migratory and resident woodcock all over the UK.
  • Shooting contributes £2.4 billion to the UK economy. People who shoot contribute around 3.9 million working days on conservation every year. It is game shoots on farms and estates that create the revenue and the reason to invest in the biodiverse habitats that benefit woodcock and many other species.
  • There is no evidence of any significant harvest of birds before 1 December and no evidence that shooting is the cause of the decline in the resident population. Given that the current harvest of migrant woodcock is sustainable, there is no need for regulatory change. The shooting fraternity is already heavily regulated.
  • The Environment Plan will provide incentives to farmers and land-owners to provide more habitat for birds such as woodcock.

The (almost) full Defra response is as follows:

All wild birds are protected in accordance with the provisions set out in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Some species of birds, including the woodcock, are listed on Schedule 2 of the Act and may be hunted during the open season. In England and Wales, the open season for woodcock is from 1 October to 31 January. Outside of this period, the close season helps to make sure that woodcocks are able to breed successfully and move between breeding and wintering grounds.

The first breeding woodcock survey was undertaken in 2003 and estimated a breeding population of 78,000 pairs in Britain. A further survey in 2013 estimated 55,000 pairs, representing a decline of 29%. As a result, the woodcock has been on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK since 2015. During winter, our resident birds are joined by migrants from breeding populations in Northern Europe and Western Russia, increasing the Great Britain non-breeding population to 1.4 million individuals.

The reasons for the decline of the breeding population of woodcock in Great Britain are not fully understood but are likely to include: disturbance; habitat loss as a result of land drainage; the drying out of natural woodlands; changes in surrounding woodland management; the maturation of new plantations; and overgrazing by deer. Further work is needed to fully understand the causes of its decline.

Defra is committed to reviewing the protection we afford to wild birds listed on Schedule 2 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, in particular establishing the evidence underpinning the listing of species such as the woodcock, so we can ensure that recreational shooting is sustainable and does not undermine species recovery. This might include amending the close season for native species such as the woodcock.

The woodcock will benefit from a number of woodland grant schemes funded by both the Countryside Stewardship scheme and the Nature for Climate Fund, some of which specifically target management for declining woodland birds. These grants include the Woods into Management Forestry Innovation Funds, which aim to restore vulnerable woodland habitats, improve biodiversity and conserve threatened species, as well as the England Woodland Creation Offer.

More broadly, environmentally sustainable farming is fundamental to our agricultural transition outside of the EU. We are introducing three environmental land management schemes: the Sustainable Farming Incentive, Local Nature Recovery, and Landscape Recovery. These schemes will pay for activities to create, manage and restore habitats such as woodland, connecting isolated habitats to form networks, and species management, all of which will benefit woodland bird species, such as the woodcock.




Monday’s parliamentary debate on Woodcock shooting season – Wild Justice

E-petition debate relating to open season for woodcock – Monday 27 February, 4.30pm – YouTube