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
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
“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