Sachez con­som­mer et ap­précier avec mod­éra­tion

How does the shoot­ing com­mu­nity solve the prob­lem of wood­cock de­clines?

Shooting Gazette - - Woodcock Woes - By Patrick Lau­rie.

All kinds of gloomy press re­leases now co­in­cide with the first fall of wood­cock. It is clear that our breed­ing birds are un­der­go­ing hor­ri­ble de­clines, and the ar­rival of for­eign mi­grants never fails to raise a dis­cus­sion about the sus­tain­abil­ity of shoot­ing. The GWCT now rec­om­mends that no shoot­ing should take place un­til the Scan­di­na­vian birds have ar­rived, in a bid to pro­tect na­tive British birds. At this, some of my shoot­ing pals have pan­icked and vowed not to shoot wood­cock ever again. 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. 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 is dif­fi­cult to quan­tify the im­pact you are mak­ing on the bag by con­serv­ing the species when the na­tion is flooded with up to 1m 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 that 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 will be back next win­ter, whether they bred in this coun­try or not. A keen shoot­ing friend showed his hand re­cently when he ad­mit­ted he didn’t know any wood­cock stayed to breed in Bri­tain at all, and yet he is al­ways first to jump at the chance of day’s sport.

We have 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 a 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 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.” As a rel­a­tively “young gun” in my early thir­ties, 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, 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 & Galloway, and the west­ern end of the county is one of the best ar­eas to shoot in win­ter. I hope to shoot a bird or two on our ground 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 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” – learn to con­sume and ap­pre­ci­ate in mod­er­a­tion.

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.

What would be the point in a sport based en­tirely on re­leased birds? It would be a sad husk of its orig­i­nal self.

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