GWCT: Breed­ing wood­cock

A new study into how habi­tat af­fects the breed­ing suc­cess of wood­cock has pro­duced use­ful re­sults that could help to steady the de­cline of this much-loved wad­ing bird, writes Joel Holt

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Wood­cock, along with many other wood­land bird pop­u­la­tions, have ex­pe­ri­enced a long-term de­cline – although, as a new study has shown, breed­ing wood­cock are more com­mon in larger, bet­ter con­nected and more var­ied wood­land ar­eas. Re­searchers look­ing to un­der­stand how man­age­ment could af­fect wood­cock breed­ing suc­cess have dis­cov­ered that a mix of dif­fer­ent tree types cre­ates an ideal en­vi­ron­ment for the much-loved wad­ing bird.

‘Habi­tat cor­re­lates of Eurasian wood­cock (Scolopax rus­ti­cola) abun­dance in a de­clin­ing res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion’ is a new pa­per that com­pares a wide range of dif­fer­ent wood­land sites across the UK in re­la­tion to the num­ber of breed­ing wood­cock present.

Birch trees form a key part of their pre­ferred habi­tat, pos­si­bly be­cause the dense trunks cre­ate safe feed­ing ground and the leaf lit­ter sup­ports more earth­worms on which wood­cock can feed.

The com­bi­na­tion of mixed wood­land, in­ter­spersed with open spa­ces, pro­vides a va­ri­ety of habi­tats for the var­i­ous stages of the breed­ing sea­son. This in­for­ma­tion could help to in­form fu­ture wood­land man­age­ment ad­vice.

Hun­dreds of vol­un­teers vis­ited pre-se­lected wood­land sites across the UK and recorded ‘rod­ing’ wood­cock at dusk dur­ing May and June – the pe­riod when this unique dis­play be­hav­iour is at its peak.

Dur­ing the sur­veys, which were car­ried out on over 800 sites in 2003 and 2013, vol­un­teers per­formed wood­cock counts and recorded data on the wood’s struc­ture, age and dom­i­nant veg­e­ta­tion types.

Wood­cock counts were com­pared with a range of land­scape-scale habi­tat vari­ables, as well as the lo­cal habi­tat mea­sures recorded by sur­vey­ors, us­ing gen­er­alised lin­ear mixed mod­els.

The pa­per, writ­ten by Game & Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust (GWCT) staff Chris He­ward, An­drew Hood­less and Ni­cholas Ae­bis­cher, as well as sci­en­tists from Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy and the Uni­ver­sity of Not­ting­ham, dis­cov­ered that wood­cock were most fre­quently found in wet wood­land ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly those con­tain­ing birch.

Wood­cock were less likely to be found at sites dom­i­nated by beech. On larger spa­tial scales, wood­cock were more abun­dant in woods con­tain­ing a greater mix of wood­land habi­tat types – par­tic­u­larly where broadleaved and conif­er­ous wood­lands oc­curred to­gether.

“The data col­lected dur­ing these two sur­veys – 10 years apart – is in­trigu­ing,” said Chris He­ward, who is a PhD stu­dent at GWCT. “We are now able to use these points to help guide fu­ture re­search into wood­cock, par­tic­u­larly with re­gards to wood­land man­age­ment, for

their ben­e­fit.

“We are also track­ing in­di­vid­ual breed­ing wood­cock to try to un­der­stand these ef­fects in more depth and iden­tify wood­land man­age­ment tech­niques that can be used to help sup­port this iconic species.”

The team also in­ves­ti­gated whether wood­cock in these ar­eas showed any signs of a re­la­tion­ship with roe, fal­low and munt­jac deer, but the ev­i­dence sug­gests they don’t.

A pre­vi­ous GWCT study has shown that the num­ber of wood­cock that breed in Britain fell by 29% dur­ing the same 10-year pe­riod. The area in which they breed is also smaller than it was, hav­ing dropped by more than half be­tween 1970 and 2010.

To read the pa­per on wood­cock breed­ing in full, fol­low this link: bit.ly/2tYRtm5

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