Woodcock debate – does anyone shoot Woodcock before 1 December?

Woodcock. Photo: Tim Melling

Some MPs really showed themselves in an unflattering light when they spoke in the Woodcock debate. Considering that GWCT and BASC favour NOT shooting Woodcock in October and either all of or most of November they were falling over themselves to criticise our proposal, supported by over 107,000 of you, that shooting should not be allowed in October and November.  Here we quote some extracts from some very confused speeches – read the full transcript of the debate here.

Sir Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby, Con) suggested that ‘Sustainable levels of shooting and the voluntary delay of shooting are the way forward‘ but also said that ‘The proposal in the petition will have little effect on the resident population, as only around 2% of birds that are shot are not migratory‘. And in one bound appears to have missed the fact that the proposal in the petition is the same as voluntary restraint except that it is adding the power of regulation. How can that be worse or have little effect? And we all know that the resident birds make up a very small proportion of the overall numbers gunned down – but they make up a very high prioportion of those at risk in October and November. That’s very much the point Sir Robert but you appear not to have grasped it. 
Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP) said ‘There is now … voluntary restraint in place: woodcock are not to be shot before 1 December. There is no evidence of any significant harvest of birds before that date and no evidence that shooting is the cause of the decline in the resident population. Given that shooting does not take place to any significant degree before 1 December and that the current harvest of migrant woodcock is clearly sustainable, there is no need for regulatory change.’.  A bit like Sir Robert – maybe they been confused by the same briefing note? 
David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, Con) said that ‘…the evidence so far shows that the voluntary actions that have been undertaken have been beneficial – that is an appropriate first step for those of us who have concerns about ensuring that the issue is addressed in the long term‘ and then dismisses the second step thus ‘I am not convinced by the evidence that has been presented that further regulation is justified at this time, nor am I convinced that it would be beneficial for the … woodcock‘. Mr Simmonds doesn’t explain why he doesn’t favour regulation on the subject on which he agrees with voluntary restraint, but he was ‘struck be’ the briefing of the Countryside Alliance who can’t explain why they don’t want people to shoot Woodcock early in the season but only through the kindness of their hearts and not through the operation of shooting seasons. 
Sir Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire, Con) said ‘If both sides of the argument agree that woodcock are special and should not really be shot until mid-November or the beginning of December, why do we need to legislate? We need to legislate when things go wrong, not when things are going right, and I think that—by and large—people have not thought about what punishment they would like to see for somebody who shoots a woodcock at the end of November.’  It’s difficult not to smile when Sir Bill speaks as he seems so affable and confident – maybe he got those traits from Eton? If one changed the shooting season then the penalties for shooting a bird out of season would be just as they are now.  But we see again the embracing of voluntary measures and the rejection of a few penstrokes which would change the shooting seasons.
Greg Smith (Buckingham, Con) said ‘Why do we need to legislate for something that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire has just said, is not actually a problem?‘. Mr Smith says that we shouldn’t add anything to the statue book because (presumably) he thinks that all the good laws are in place already and nothing needs to change (?), but in any case he is wrong because the change in shooting season is secondary legislation and can be achieved very simply – no new law is needed.
Running up to the debate and during the debate it was repeatedly stated that voluntary measures were working – pretty much perfectly. There is no reason at all to believe this. There are, despite the claims made, no real data to back up this claim. The only ‘evidence’ is what shooters say about their own behaviour. This comes from the industry that claims that it is giving up lead ammunition voluntarily, which claimed it would cease burning blanket bogs voluntarily and which has claimed for decades that hardly any illegal killing of birds of prey goes on – none of those things is true and yet each is said with equal certainty as the nonsense on Woodcock shooting.
We don’t doubt there is a bit more restraint on Woodcock shooting than there was a decade ago, but the idea that everything is fine is just a story.  Let’s look at the evidence.
  1. Back in June 2020 the GWCT published a popular account of their satellite tagging study of Woodcock in British Birds. It’s a very interesting study and the paper included the exhortation to shooters not to shoot Woodcock before 1 December.  One of us wondered whether this was being respected and spent just a few moments searching the internet for advertisements for Woodcock shooting before 1 December – click here.  There were loads and loads of examples and they didn’t take much searching.
  2. In March 2022, when we wrote to Defra on this matter the situation had not changed – there were plenty of shooting estates and websites offering Woodcock shooting to paying clients before 1 December – look at the examples in our letter to Defra at footnotes 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 here.
  3. As the date of the debate approached, shooters became a little more circumspect about publicly offering Woodcock shooting  before 1 December – but only a little. In January, the Shooting Times published a letter , and a photo, of a dad and his son who had been out shooting in Lancashire in mid November and the adult had achieved a ‘left and right’ of Woodcock under the title of ‘A day to remember’ (don’t you worry, we will – click here). Bragging about breaking what is claimed to be an effective voluntary restraint on shooting in a shooting magazine is not a good look for an industry whose advocates are going to stand up in parliament and claim all is well.
  4. In the week before the debate there were still adverts for Woodcock shooting in October and November plainly advertised and some still are. Here are four current examples; this one from Scotland which also has an American Woodcock pictured (click here), this one from Wales (click here), this from Northern Ireland (click here) and another from Scotland (click here). Several websites have changed what they say (they’ve become rather coy about what they’ll sell you) but we cannot tell whether they have changed what happens on the ground. Here’s one example (click here).

It’s unclear how much change there has really been. We suspect, from what we are told, that there really has been some uptake of voluntary restraint in shooting dates, and that the GWCT has been responsible for much of that spread in good practice. Our campaign will have accelerated that spread. But it is clear that more is needed – if only so that those showing voluntary restraint don’t feel like mugs.  Those MPs who claimed that all is well are wrong and are doing shooting a disservice.

If nobody ever shot a Woodcock in September- November then you could argue that such a change in shooting season were unnecessary – but they clearly do. And if not for limiting unsustainable shooting, what are open and close seasons for? 

The shooting industry has looked shifty and evasive on this issue. It’s quite obvious that everyone thinks that we shouldn’t shoot Woodcock before 1 December – let’s update outdated shooting season to reflect that, please!