Dwindling woodcock populations to be tracked by new online ‘satnav’ system

The woodcock, whose numbers have slumped, prompting the satellite tagging project, far right, which traces the birds' migratory habits. Photograph: Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust
The woodcock, whose numbers have slumped, prompting the satellite tagging project, far right, which traces the birds' migratory habits. Photograph: Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust
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A GROUND-BREAKING project using satellites to track the movements of Scotland’s most secretive birds has been launched online.

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust will use satellite technology to follow 12 woodcocks as they migrate to northern Europe and Russia to breed.

It is hoped the research into flight trajectories – which can be followed on the Trust’s Woodcock Watch website – will give an insight into how the elusive wading birds behave during migration and pave the way for calls for better conservation measures, such as restrictions on hunting. The woodcock population has been decimated in recent years, with a reported 86 per cent slump in numbers between 1970 and 2007.

In the UK, there is a resident population of around 78,000 male birds, around 36,000 of which live in Scotland. This is supplemented by around 1.4 million migratory woodcocks who arrive in their droves in October from northern Europe and stay here until late March.

The birds move incredibly fast, at 40km per hour, and can fly non-stop for 24 hours, meaning they can travel massive distances of more than 3,000km to reach their far-flung breeding grounds.

Woodcocks can currently be hunted in Scotland except on Sundays and on Christmas Day. Similar rules apply in England and Wales.

“Perhaps the most immediate result of this project would be a dialogue in Europe about bag limits and sustainability in shooting,” said Dr Andrew Hoodless of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. “We’re not advocating voluntary bans or some sort of restriction on hunting at this stage but it’s something we may look at in the future.”

There is currently no limit on the number of woodcocks that can be hunted in the UK, although some limits exist in other European countries including France, Italy and Portugal. Between three and four million woodcocks are hunted each year across Europe.

Two of the birds involved in the project, nicknamed Rocket and Speedy, were tagged in Scotland on the Beauly Firth earlier this month.

The technology will allow conservationists to monitor their flight path as they travel to breeding grounds as far east as the Russian port city of Arkangel.

So far, the birds have behaved very differently. Rocket, who was tagged on 1 March, spent another two weeks in the south of the Firth before sending a location message back on 16 March which indicated that he was in Norway just south of Bjornafjord near Vikebygd. He has since flown around 120km further north east to the county of Hordaland near to the town of Granvin on the Hardangerfjord.

The other Scottish bird however, a female perhaps erroneously named Speedy, has yet to leave the Beauly Firth.

“We would expect them all to start moving fairly soon,” said Hoodless. “The fact that Rocket has gone straight to Norway whereas Speedy has not moved yet would suggest that she is going to go to a different breeding ground somewhere else, perhaps in one of the Baltic states or even in Russia.”

The project is also monitoring birds from other parts of the UK including some in Wales, Cornwall, Durham and Norfolk.

Woodcocks are secretive birds that are rarely spotted in the wild. Hoodless said: “I am convinced that by following our 12 satellite tagged birds we will soon have some revealing insights into the migration strategies of woodcocks across Europe.

“This information is essential for sound conservation management of the species as well as being of fascination to us all.”

He added that the project is hoping to expand the number of birds it monitors over the next year.

“We are looking to tag a further 20 woodcocks over the next two winters to ensure a scientifically valid analysis,” Hoodless said. “Woodcocks generally live for three to four years so we’re hoping that with some of the birds we will be able to follow them for several seasons and watch their repeated migratory patterns.”

To follow the birds on their journeys log on to www.woodcockwatch.com