Over the last 35 years, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (formerly Game Conservancy Trust) has conducted a range of research projects on woodcock. These have provided us with a basic understanding of the species’ ecology during the breeding season and in winter, and have recently focussed on estimating the UK’s population size and shedding light on woodcock migration.
Until the 1970s, it was believed that the woodcock’s roding flights, a unique aerial display performed in the breeding season, served to delineate territories. It was not until Dr Graham Hirons radio-tagged males in the 1970s and 1980s that we discovered that they were attempting to mate with several females during the breeding season and took no part in incubation or chick rearing.
Our recent research has examined the ecology of wintering birds, contrasting the behaviour of resident woodcock with that of migrants. This research has focussed on the feeding patterns and habitat selection of woodcock in winter, allowing us to identify the factors that are important for survival.
Prior to the use of satellite-transmitters, the GWCT used stable isotope analysis to study the origins of migratory woodcock. Stable isotope analysis enables the hatching or moulting location of a bird to be estimated from the chemical composition of its feathers. Although the resolution of the technique is limited to several degrees of latitude and longitude, it has provided a useful precursor to our satellite-tracking study.
Ringing and stable isotope analysis suggest broadly similar compositions of the British and Irish wintering woodcock population, with approximately 17% being British breeders, 51% originating from Russia and the Baltic states and 32% from Scandinavia and Finland. The data suggest that woodcock from Russia and the Baltic States travel to Britain across a broad front, whereas Scandinavian birds appear more restricted to Scotland, Wales and Ireland, with a lower proportion reaching southern England.
Our current team is led by Dr Andrew Hoodless, who has worked on woodcock for 20 years, and PhD student Chris Heward.