– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 27th February 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 619615, relating to the open season for woodcock.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. Mark Avery, Chris Packham and Ruth Tingay from Wild Justice want the opening of the woodcock shooting season to be formally pushed back to
There is no doubt that the resident British woodcock population is not doing well. The Staffordshire Wildlife Trust does great work in my constituency and is dedicated to protecting some of our most beautiful natural wildlife. Woodcock is the only species of wading bird in Britain and Ireland that is adapted to breed in woodland areas. The British Trust for Ornithology, or BTO, describes it as a “superbly camouflaged” bird with a habit of remaining motionless unless approached at very close quarters. There are two distinct populations of woodcocks in the United Kingdom: a smaller breeding population that is resident all year round and a much large overwintering population that arrives in the UK from November onwards.
I have held meetings with those on both sides of this debate to ensure that I make balanced and considered points on the matter. I was glad to meet with Mark, Chris and Ruth from Wild Justice, who started the petition. In addition, I spoke with Jeff Knott from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Both organisations support the measure that the petitioners want the Government to introduce.
I also spoke with Andrew Hoodless and Roger Draycott from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, or GWCT, who argue that the ban is arbitrary and that the decline in the woodcock population is a result of bad habitats for woodcock and the deer population. Those views are shared by Jak Abrahams from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and by Tim Bonner from the Countryside Alliance. They believe that parliamentary time would be better spent on debating and scrutinising the Government’s approach to resident deer population management or the proper management of the countryside, so that we can best protect British and Irish woodcocks.
In 2015, the native woodcock was put on the Great Britain red list, highlighting its decline. Wild Justice is determined for the Secretary of State to introduce statutory measures to reduce the shooting season specifically for woodcocks. The woodcock is a magnificent species and a true symbol of the Great British countryside. As the Member in charge of the debate, I look forward to setting out the complex and nuanced arguments surrounding the length of the season and how best to protect the woodcock. Let me be clear: there is no doubt that the native British and Irish woodcock is in decline. The first breeding woodcock survey was undertaken in 2003 and estimated a breeding population of 78,000 pairs in Britain. A survey conducted a decade later, in 2013, found that there were only 55,000 pairs in the UK—a significant decline of 29%.
I will press on and highlight the arguments for and against the motion. I will start by setting out the arguments made by Wild Justice and the RSPB. Wild Justice states that it uses the legal system to get a better deal for UK wildlife, challenge Government decisions in the courts, and campaign for better and stronger laws and policies. With the native woodcock breeding population in sharp decline, Wild Justice suggests that the shooting season should be reduced by pushing the start date back. That would not end the shooting season but simply change when it starts. It is vital to stress that Wild Justice is not looking for an outright ban on shooting woodcocks, but is focused on shortening the shooting season to better protect the native woodcock population.
Despite figures that suggest that the native population has declined drastically, the pro-shooting Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust estimates that 160,000 woodcocks are shot in the United Kingdom each year. At present, the shooting season commences on
Therefore, the petition put forward to us today seeks to get the Secretary of State to exercise their power to vary the close season for the woodcock. Wild Justice and the 107,000 signatories to the petition argue that that would drastically help our native birds. Importantly, it would not require primary legislation. In Great Britain, the Secretary of State has the power to vary the close season for woodcock. Similarly, in Northern Ireland the Minister has the same power to vary the close season for woodcocks there.
While conducting research for this important debate, I met Jeff from the RSPB, as I said. He argued that the concept of voluntary restraint, which the shooting lobby uses as an ostensible rationale for protection of the current season, is highly ineffective. Voluntary restraint is used by some shooting organisations to protect this majestic bird. Rather than requiring statutory measures to protect woodcocks, organisations regulate themselves and either completely prohibit shooting woodcocks or follow the guidance laid out by Wild Justice. Jeff discussed a joint statement from February 2020 in which nine shooting organisations called for a voluntary phase-out of the use of lead in ammunition within five years. Despite there being ostensible support for the statement, the SHOT-SWITCH research project showed that by 2022, 99.5% of pheasants for human consumption that were bought from retailers across the UK and from which shotgun pellets could be recovered had been killed using lead ammunition.
My hon. Friend is doing a very good job of being fair and putting the argument across. The first thing to say is that the plural of woodcock is woodcock; there is no s. I am sorry to be pedantic, but I just thought it might be helpful. Secondly, the voluntary ban on using lead shot has not been completed yet, so it is inevitable that some lead will still be used.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for correcting my spelling, punctuation and grammar—it is always good, as a teacher, to be clued up on these things, and I have shown that I need to go back to school quite urgently.
I also want to put across the point made to me: actually, we would have expected a much sharper decline in the use of lead shot. Although the RSPB will accept that, to a certain extent, because of covid and lockdown there will obviously be lead shot that still needs to be got rid of—that process will have slowed down—the reality is that it would still have expected a much more drastic reduction than the 0.5% that we have seen. It would argue that the point proves that voluntary restraint is not actually being taken very seriously by those participating. That is why the concern for the woodcock is shared by Wild Justice, which would argue that despite the informal agreement, it has not been carried forward. In fact, in the Shooting Times there has been open bragging about the shooting of woodcock outside of the agreed season, which would lean into this idea that there is currently mistrust in the system, sadly.
The RSPB argues that the lead ammunition survey makes it clear that voluntary restraint is ineffective on this issue and therefore statutory measures must be enforced to protect the woodcock. In addition to the lead ammunition survey, another indicator of the shooting communities’ reluctance to co-operate in voluntary restraint is the article in the Shooting Times, dated
This is an important point of discussion, as we have already seen. One of the key arguments against a ban, made by those who support shooting, is that the principle of voluntary restraint means that any statutory ban is unnecessary. However, as the lead ammunition survey shows, there is little evidence to suggest that shooting organisations keep to their promises and restrain themselves from shooting woodcock.
The hon. Gentleman might not be aware that there is an all-party parliamentary group on lead ammunition, which I co-chair; he would be very welcome to join that group to pursue that angle.
On whether a voluntary approach is good enough, if the shooting organisations accept that there should not be shooting out of season, surely the underlying principle that shooting woodcock before
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her fine work in the APPG on lead ammunition. She hits the nail on the head when it comes to Mark, Chris and Ruth’s viewpoint: ultimately, there is already an voluntary agreement in place, which is agreed by all parties, so why would there be any objection to statutory enforcement of the shooting season?
Ultimately, everyone agrees that the woodcock needs to be removed from the red list and that we need to see population growth come back, especially as we are working towards rewilding, improving our nature and landscape, and making sure that we look after British species and see them repopulate. Ultimately, there is a win for everyone in this regard, and I completely concur with the hon. Lady. To me, her argument seems reasonable. As someone who is not a shooter, who represents an urban constituency and who did not know about woodcock until I volunteered to take on this debate, it seems like plain common sense. That is my personal opinion, but I want to make sure that I outline the opposition to the petition, because I am grateful to those who were willing to give their time to argue against it, but who obviously do not have the privilege of standing here today.
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the GWCT and the Countryside Alliance argue that climate change, natural habitats and deer population are the main reasons for the decline in woodcock. The British Trust for Ornithology largely agrees with that interpretation, saying that
“reasons for the decline are unclear but may include recreational disturbance, drying out of woodlands, increased browsing by deer, declining woodland management, and maturing of new plantations.”
To the shooting organisations, this means that it is highly unlikely that a statutory change will make any real difference.
The BASC argues that there is no evidence that shooting is responsible for either breeding range or population declines, and it refutes Wild Justice’s notion that shooting is the primary factor in the woodcock population’s struggle. The BASC argues that Wild Justice is wrong to claim that around 160,000 woodcock are shot each year. It says that that figure is based on the Value of Shooting survey from 2014, reflecting a bag estimate from 2012, and that, rather than focusing on Wild Justice’s figure, we should look to the 2022 Value of Shooting survey, due to be published later this year. All indicators point to a significantly lower figure almost a decade on, and all the evidence suggests that the vast majority of these birds come from the over-wintering migrant population, which is healthy and not threatened.
Of course, we must also consider voluntary restraint from the perspective of those who endorse it. Most shooters already act responsibly and do not start shooting woodcock until later in the season, when more birds have migrated from the continent, which helps to protect the vulnerable UK population. Additionally, many shoots explicitly forbid the shooting of woodcock, as they are aware of the vulnerability of the UK breeding population. Although there are examples of voluntary restraint not being followed, pro-shooting organisations argue that there is a minuscule number of breaches of the rules, which we must weigh up when coming to conclusions on this issue.
It is important to stress that shooters argue robustly that they have deep respect for the magnificent species that we are discussing today, and shooters provide invaluable conservation work in the form of research and improvements to the habitat for both migratory and resident woodcock all over the UK. I represent 676 members of the BASC, and I have no doubt that they are dedicated to preserving this bird. Their argument is simple: to best protect woodcock, it is more beneficial to address environmental problems. Furthermore, the GWCT points out that a statutory change to the woodcock shooting season fails to consider geographical nuances—for example, there are no native woodcock in the south-west and Wales. Therefore, should a woodcock be shot in one of those areas in mid-November, it would almost certainly be a foreign bird, especially given that native woodcock typically stay within a 30-mile radius throughout the year.
I have held discussions with Andrew Hoodless from the GWCT, who believes that Wild Justice’s focus on shooting risks taking the focus away from the real issues facing our native breeding woodcock and could disincentivise the active management of woodlands, which is what woodcock actually need. The GWCT argues strongly that Wild Justice has failed to consider some of the nuances involved in the debate on this subject; it believes that it would be more appropriate to consider a change to the shooting season when the results of the national breeding woodcock survey—to be repeated in 2023, 10 years after the last survey—are known.
The GWCT argues that to address breeding woodcock decline, a change to the shooting season should be considered as part of a package of measures, including targeted woodland management incentives, which would also benefit certain other declining woodland birds and butterflies. The argument is that Wild Justice is missing the point through its failure to properly acknowledge the significant impact of the change in habitat and that it is using shooting to score political points. Wild Justice has stated that it would like to see an outright ban on woodcock shooting, and pro-shooting organisations have argued that it is using the current proposed change to the start of the season as a test of the Government’s commitment to wildlife conservation.
The Countryside Alliance argues that the primary reasons for the decline in woodcock include the maturing of conifer plantations and changes to management practices, such as coppicing, which means there is a reduced, less diverse shrub layer and a loss of open space for woodcock to breed in. One of the Countryside Alliance’s main arguments centres on the need to dedicate focus on local deer populations. It points to a study that vividly illustrates the demonstrable impact that browsing by deer can have in the habitat that woodcock live in. The Countryside Alliance feels that parliamentary time would be best suited to debating sustainable deer management or the impact that habitat degradation has on the native woodcock population and wider biodiversity.
Lastly, I will outline the importance that shooting has to the economy of our United Kingdom. Research from shooting organisations suggests that shooting contributes £2.4 billion to the UK economy. Crucially, people who shoot contribute around 3.9 million working days on conservation every year. It is game shoots on farms and estates that create the revenue and the reason to invest in creating and caring for the biodiverse habitats that benefit woodcock and many other species. That would not be the case if the land was used for commercial farming. The combination of managed woodland, predator control and biodiverse habitats is the secret to a healthy woodcock population, not the changing of the shooting season.
It has been immensely interesting to hear other points of view, and it will be fantastic to see colleagues in the Chamber representing different perspectives. I appreciate Members’ willingness to contribute to this timely debate. Before I conclude, I will quickly offer my own view on the matter. Given that there is already pre-agreement between those who shoot and those, such as Wild Justice, who want to see conservation work, I do not see why we cannot come to a statutory agreement that the shooting season should take place from
The preservation of our wildlife is really important to my constituents. Although my constituency is in a city, it is one of the greenest cities in the United Kingdom, and I am proud to represent it. I hope that I have done justice to the petitioners in putting their views across, as well as being fair and balanced to the other side. I look forward to hearing what colleagues have to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I thank the Petitions Committee for this debate and Jonathan Gullis for outlining the arguments around this issue so eloquently. Those who regularly attend debates on nature and the climate emergency will know that, like many in my constituency, I am a great supporter of our environment and protecting species in decline. Although I am a biomedical scientist, I am intrigued and fascinated by all life, and recognise the value that our natural world offers in so many ways.
We are here to talk about woodcock. I am here to lend my support to the petition, which 370 of my constituents signed. I thank the campaigners, including Wild Justice and others, for raising awareness of the issue and helping to bring this matter forward for debate. While the migratory population of woodcock is not declining, the native population has reduced by a horrifying 19% in the last 10 years, and by 29% since the 1970s. We should see those figures in the context of the large-scale species decline that is characterising the twin nature and climate emergencies. Last year, Living Planet reported that global animal populations experienced an average decline of nearly 70% in the last 50 years. The woodcock in the UK is clearly at the sharp end of that global trend and, as the “State of Nature Report 2019” highlights, 41% of species in the UK have reduced in number since the 1970s. Since the year 1500, 133 species have vanished altogether. We should be doing all we can to ensure the woodcock does not join them.
That means taking measures such as moving the open season for woodcock to December to reduce the number of native birds that are shot, as outlined in the petition. It also means proactive approaches and measures to protect and extend the habitats that support the species. As the name suggests, the woodcock inhabits woodland, so it is vital that we do all we can to revitalise these habits. By the end of this Parliament, the Government have set themselves a target of planting 30,000 hectares of woodland per year. In 2021, they managed to plant 13,400 trees. Last year, that number grew by only 400 trees to 13,800. If the current trend continues, we will obviously not reach the target. I ask the Minister: what are the Government doing to increase that figure so that they meet their target?
To meet the target, we will need to increase capacity in our domestic nurseries, but capacity and tree-planting expertise has reduced in the UK. What are the Government doing not only to support and grow domestic tree nurseries, but to ensure that we have the skills and expertise to staff them? Although we are debating nature, the reduction in woodcock numbers and species across the UK and the globe are not natural. To reverse the decline, we need changes in regulation and the law, but we also need investment in green infrastructure in the UK. In the case of the woodcock, that is needed, especially in our woodlands. Part of the measure of our success in revitalising these habitats will be in the return of the species. In 10 years’ time, I hope that we will look back and see a huge growth in our domestic woodcock population but, for that to happen, we will need measures such as those outlined in the petition and serious investment in the necessary skills and infrastructure to protect and grow our woodland. That is what we need from Government.
I thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for introducing the debate in such a balanced way. I am probably to blame for one of the reasons why we are here. Some years ago, I mentioned the petitions system in Estonia to David Cameron; if a certain proportion of the population signed a petition, it would be debated in Parliament. I am pleased that the suggestion to David Cameron, who was Leader of the Opposition at the time, has resulted in these sorts of petitions coming forward.
I put on record the fact that I am a trustee of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, which is ably chaired by our former colleague, Sir Jim Paice. The trust carries out much-needed research in these areas to ensure that, when decisions are made by politicians and land managers, they are based on sound scientific research. Indeed, it publishes the results of its research, whether or not it benefits its objectives.
There is a lot of talk about the changes to the way in which we manage our countryside, with the environmental land management scheme, rewilding, tree planting and general conservation being front and centre of Government policy. Of course, where shooting takes place, that has been happening for generations and that has had positive knock-on effects for ecology. Two-thirds of my constituency is covered by moorland, where it is not only the grouse that thrives, but the lapwing, the curlew and the golden plover. That is because of the management of that grouse moorland, including the burning and the predator control, which means not only that the game species can thrive, but the other species that need that environment thrive too. Many of those arguments apply to the woodcock. There is a situation unfolding in my patch: one of the landowners wants to plant some woodland but, because the adjacent moorland is not shot or game-keepered, Natural England is worried that the predators in that woodland, such as foxes, will go on to the moor and deplete some of the important ground-nesting species that we all want to see.
We have heard that there are two populations of the woodcock: resident and migratory. There has been some talk about the red list. The woodcock is on the international red list as a species of least concern with a stable population trend, in the same category as the blackbird, although the resident population is under much more pressure. Around 1.4 million migrants arrive each year, on a mean date of
The native woodcock was rare or absent in the UK until the mid-19th century. It nests in woodlands, and those habitats were previously not there. It was because of lowland tree planting, some of which was meant to encourage game, that the birds started to build here. In the 20th century, the planting of very large areas of conifers by the Forestry Commission and others resulted in the population increasing.
Now that population is declining, and a number of factors are behind that. First, we cannot avoid the effect of global warming on the species. The western limit of the woodcock which is here in the UK is moving to the north and east. In fact, in Devon and Cornwall, the woodcock is very rare. Unfortunately, global warming is having an effect. Secondly, those conifer plantations which, when planted, were superb environments for the woodcock, are now maturing, and there is very little opportunity for them to breed there. Thirdly, we have woodland degradation by deer, which is not conducive to woodcock breeding. We also have predation from raptors and other predators, with some birds of prey in particular—I saw 14 buzzards in the sky in one place last summer. It is great news that we are getting more birds of prey, but they do predate on some of these ground-nesting species.
Our shooting season is between
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. Sustainable levels of shooting and the voluntary delay of shooting are the way forward, at least until we have more data. Instead, to encourage more woodcock, we can continue active habitat management —part of the changes in the way we support farmers will help that—and, in particular, look at more open woodland. Secondly, we need better predator control: foxes, mustelids, such as stoats, and feral cats are predating on our native species. We would also like to see more game being eaten, in particular venison, as some of the habitat degradation is the effect of unprecedently high numbers of deer in our country. I have not eaten woodcock myself, but it has a high reputation. The more shooting farms and estates we have, the more land managers will be engaged in the conservation work we need to rebuild our native woodcock population.
What a pleasure it is to speak in this debate. I thank Jonathan Gullis for setting the scene so well and in such a balanced way. I think his understanding of the subject will have been enhanced by his work looking into it.
It is well known that I am a country sports enthusiast, and within the heart of that title is the need to be a conservationist. Those two things, in my opinion, are mutually supportive. I want to focus on that in the short time that I have. I declare an interest as a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Countryside Alliance Ireland, Sport Ireland and the Ulster Farmers Union, and as a landowner. I mention all those things because I am involved with them and I want to do that for a purpose.
On my farm, where we have planted some 3,500 trees, we have created the very habitat that woodcocks—indeed all birds, including pheasants, pigeons and songbirds—want. The yellowhammer, which was at its lowest numbers ever, now has a place on our farm and all the farms around us—in Calvert’s farm, in Rosemount and in Ballywalter. The landowners—all those who shoot, by the way—have made it their job to create a habitat that helps the birds to thrive.
On my early walk on Sunday morning, I saw more songbirds than I have ever seen—it was one of the most phenomenal sights that I have seen for a long time. It tells me that those involved in conservation and those who contribute to conservation are creating the very habitat that we want to see. Shooting contributes some £2.4 billion to the UK economy per annum, and people who shoot contribute 3.9 million workdays on conservation every year—the equivalent of 16,000 full-time conservation jobs. Some of those funds and conservation days are put towards the management of land for woodcock, as we and my neighbours do. I agree with the Countryside Alliance and the BASC, which have highlighted that, without the financial incentive, shoot owners and managers would not contribute to the management of their habitat, which would fuel fears that the native population would drop.
I have many friends in the constituency who go woodcock shooting every Saturday during the season—not every Saturday, but whenever winter comes in, because there is no sense in doing it otherwise. They start in December. They do that because that is what they do. When they come back, I always ask how they got on. They tell me, “We put up maybe 20 or 25 woodcock today and we shot one,” or “We shot five.” They are good shots, by the way—it is not that they are bad shots—but the habitat by its very nature is usually very compact, and therefore the birds are fast, and the nature of the terrain means that they get only a glimpse of a bird and then it is away. They exercise control. Let us give some credit to them. Let us be honest: we do not need a petition to tell us what to do. We can do those things already, we can make those contributions and we are doing that.
The global population of woodcock—some 10 million to 26 million—is stable. The UK hosts 1.4 million winter migrants, according to the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology, and peak arrival is during November and departure in late March. Data indicates that the winter migrant population is increasing, so there are more woodcock coming to the country than there has ever been. Woodcock were rare or absent as breeding birds until the mid-19th century—fact. They were never here in those numbers as breeding birds until then. Extensive planting of, first, lowland coverts and then, in the 20th century, conifer plantations led to an increase in numbers. Conservationists, landowners and farmers have created the very habitat that encourages woodcock. We should give credit to those who have done that.
There is currently a resident British population of 55,000 male woodcock in spring, which means about 180,000 individuals in autumn. The UK breeding population is estimated to have declined by 29% in 10 years. I will say what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said in the second part of his speech—others will say this as well, but it is very important to put it on record—the reasons for the decline include the maturing of the conifer plantations and changes to management practices such as coppicing, which means that there is a reduced, less-diverse shrub layer and the loss of open space for woodcock to breed in. The overpopulation of deer and changes in forestry habits have also contributed.
For obvious reasons, woodcock have traditionally been shot after the main body of migrants arrive. There is now—this is not something we have been told to do, because we already do it—voluntary restraint in place: woodcock are not to be shot before
Extensive research into this area has been carried out by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Their ongoing research includes a study on the habitat for breeding woodcock. In England and Wales, the open season for woodcock, during which it is lawful to shoot them, is from
With respect, there is no evidence that shooting has had a detrimental impact on the woodcock population, or that changes to the existing season are necessary. I fully support what the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance have called for: continued support for a voluntary restraint for woodcock not to be shot before
To conclude, our woodcock are a treasure. Proper management can, and should be, done inclusively with the country sports enthusiasts—the BASC, the Countryside Alliance, those at the Country Land and Business Association, landowners, and those who have a love for the birds and their habitat. At the same time, is there anything wrong with harvesting a few to eat? I have had a few of them over my years. They are quite juicy; I have enjoyed them. I would say I would rather have a pigeon, but that is by the way; woodcock are a bird of some taste. I ask the Minister to consider very seriously the best way forward to replenish and restore the numbers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. It is important for me to start with some constituency context. I represent a constituency in north-west London, which is probably best known for being a suburban area. However, we have more than 80 farms. We have a number of important habitats, in particular for bird life, in Mad Bess woods and Ruislip woods. We have a significant number of members of both the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the RSPB. We are also home to the well-known Holland & Holland shooting ground, which is used regularly by people who enjoy clay pigeon shooting and who perhaps go on to practise shooting birds.
I have had the opportunity to enjoy both the hospitality of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, and I have read the helpful and regular briefings that have come from the RSPB and other interested organisations over the years. It seems that this is an important debate that goes to the heart of many of the issues that Parliament, and us as Members of Parliament, need to consider. We are looking at not just the issues faced by the woodcock population in the United Kingdom, but the many other issues that affect the relationship between humans and animals in so many different ways.
I was a member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologist Club many years ago. I want to place on the record my thanks in particular to the noble Lord Randall, who has a huge interest in bird life and has been an influence on my thinking on the matter. When we look at the various briefings that Members of Parliament have received on the issue, and at the views set out in the petition itself, it seems there are a number of issues we need to consider.
It is clear that climate change is having a significant impact on the breeding habitats of wild birds around the world, especially migratory species. We need to consider what responsibilities our Government have. We need to consider not just what we can do here in the United Kingdom, but what influence we can bring to bear in international forums to try to secure and improve the provision of those habitats, so that both migratory birds and birds domestic to the United Kingdom can thrive.
I was very struck by the briefing from the Countryside Alliance, which set out a great deal of the history, much of which has already been mentioned by other Members. It highlighted that the habitats that are so important for our woodcock population in the United Kingdom largely derive from environments that were created specifically, over the years, by those wishing to create an environment suitable for pheasant shooting.
That has been a consistent issue in the debates relating to any proposed restrictions on the shooting of animals in the United Kingdom. Personally, I have never shot a living creature for fun, but I am quite happy to eat game that has been shot. However, a consistent theme that has arisen through all those debates is that there is a balance between those who manage environments that are crucial for species—but are doing so because of farming, or, in this case, shooting for pleasure—and the need to restrict behaviour that goes against the law or has a long-term negative impact on the wellbeing of those species.
What I found striking in that Countryside Alliance briefing was the evidence that the shooting of animals—with the income derived from that, and the management of those habitats as a result—has been of long-term benefit to the species that we are talking about today, and those that we have debated in previous discussions, in response to previous petitions and wider-spread public concern. So, while I completely understand the views of a good many of my constituents, who have been most persuaded by the views of the RSPB, it seems that we need, at a governmental level, to balance that with the overall environmental and wildlife impact that any further restrictions will introduce.
As a consequence, it seems to me that, when we do balance those two things—I very much agree with Jim Shannon 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.
This is a matter that Government clearly need to keep an eye on. However, while the Government might respond with further regulation, some of which may well be appropriate, the work done with different organisations on moving from lead to steel shot shows how co-operation can produce a much better outcome in animal and environmental welfare than the alternative of seeking regulation that perhaps does not fully consider the impact, particularly on the incomes that support that wildlife and habitat management. We must therefore maintain that sense of co-operation.
That being the case, 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 animal species—woodcock and other creatures—that are part of this overall both economic and wildlife ecosystem. Therefore, I very much agree that, as the hon. Member for Strangford outlined, we should continue to monitor this, but that the status quo represents an appropriate balance between the interests of birds, of the economy, and of people who wish to enjoy shooting as part of their day-to-day lives in our countryside.
I thought that my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis put the arguments extremely well. He was very fair, honest and open, and I thought that was helpful. I must just draw the attention of Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am very fond of woodcock. They are the only birds with binocular vision, which means that when they fly, they can see where they are going, which is why they have an extraordinary flight pattern, particularly in the evening as the light fades.
I am delighted that Wild Justice is accepting the value of shooting in conservation, but I did think that it was not terribly happy with the law on raptor control. Therefore, I am not sure that bringing in more laws will necessarily make it any happier.
Of the 1.6 million woodcock that arrive in the UK, 10% are shot. Most of those must be migrant woodcock. Why, therefore, is the wild population in the rest of the world not declining? I did a bit of maths, and I hope the House will forgive me if I get it wrong, but according to the statistics for this debate, there are 55,000 male woodcock in the UK in the spring. That means there are probably 55,000 female woodcock in the UK in the spring. Woodcock lay about four eggs, which means about 220,000 eggs, of which two thirds are likely to hatch, which is 145,000 woodcock chicks hatching in the UK every year from the current population. Yet only 18,000 of these get shot.
If people are worried about woodcock—I am sure that many of those listening to this debate are, because they are beautiful birds—then what has happened to the rest of those chicks? The answer must be that the problem is not shooting; the problem is habitat, and it always will be with these particularly wonderful birds. Someone who goes for a walk in the countryside will probably not see one, because their camouflage is fantastic. On the other hand, if they take their dog with them, their chances of seeing woodcock go up dramatically—which is why I suspect that those wandering around the countryside are perhaps unwittingly doing far more damage to the 145,000 woodcock chicks that never make it to adulthood, seemingly.
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.
At the moment, someone who shoots a raptor can spend up to five years in prison—the law is extremely tough in that respect. I do not believe for one second that Wild Justice is suggesting the same for woodcock; I think what it wants is to put as much pressure as possible on the shooting community. This is a community that is more regulated than anybody else, and rightly so: those with guns have to fulfil the criteria necessary to be allowed to have those weapons. It is a rare privilege, but it is also heavily licensed; however, what we are seeing here is just another way of attacking it.
I urge the House not to change the law on any of this. However, if the Government are minded to do so, let us have some proper changes. Let us have a longer shooting season for pheasants, which are not endangered at all. Let us have a longer period for catching up after the shooting season. Let us allow shooting on a Sunday. Let us stop people roaming around when there is shooting going on. Most of all, let us have a 10-year shotgun certificate, because now we are looking at people’s medical history and GPs have to check people’s mental health. So much progress has been made on protecting the public. Bringing people back to pay again and again wastes police time, costs a lot and is completely unnecessary. If we are going to change the laws on shooting season, then let us have a proper debate and change all the laws that need altering.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. I will not take too much time, because repetition—as I was reminded when Timmy Mallett joined me at a charity event in my constituency yesterday—can bring that famous foam hammer down on one’s head.
The point I really want to make—which builds on the arguments made by my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) and for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill, and Jim Shannon—is to ask: why? 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?
The shooting community shoots up and down the land. I fully accept that there are one or two irresponsible shoots, which we need to clamp down—the sort of shoots that bury the birds afterwards, rather than putting them into the food chain. However, the vast majority of shoots are entirely responsible and entirely focused on, yes, shooting the birds and getting them into the food chain, and more than anything else they are focused on conservation: looking after our countryside and ensuring that these habitats are there, not just for woodcock but for every species we could care to imagine.
That is clear from the statistics already quoted this afternoon. As it is, and with a very high rate of compliance, shoots up and down the country are not shooting woodcock until after
This voluntary transition is leading to much sounder and more sustainable shooting in the United Kingdom. The longer that transition is left as voluntary—I stress the word “voluntary”—then the future benefits of shooting will be all the greater, not just to the economy but to getting more game meat into the food chain. I should say in passing that it is sometimes overlooked and forgotten that game meat is often healthier and a better protein than many of the meats we all buy from supermarket shelves. More people should be encouraged to eat game; I am encouraged by BGA’s success in getting more game meat served on national health service hospital wards, providing healthy protein.
We must ask ourselves this question: what good would it do to put another piece of legislation on the statute book? What would it achieve? Would it change anything on the ground? The answer can only be no. As others have said, between 1.4 million and 1.6 million woodcock migrate to the United Kingdom annually. The International Union for Conservation of Nature red list clearly lists the woodcock as a species of least concern, with a stable global population trend. This is not a bird that is about to die out or on the precipice of extinction; shoots and famers up and down the land look after the habitats that sustain all these species which we care so much about.
While the petition looks at specific dates around the shooting season, there is no question but that there are those out there who want to stop shooting altogether. They want to stop the British public shooting game and, more importantly, eating that healthy, nutritious source of food. But there is a reality that underpins that mission, and it is fantasy-land politics to believe that, if it were successful and we no longer shot and ate game, that would suddenly lead to a massive growth in the woodcock population or any other species—that somehow deer will neatly pat down the soil around newly planted saplings, or that predatory birds would bring down tasty worms and gift them to the woodcock.
Does my hon. Friend agree that even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds understands the importance of predator control? In 2018, it controlled 598 foxes and 800 crows, and it also controls barnacle geese and Canada geese to protect terns and avocets, so it understands the importance of managing the countryside in the way that gamekeepers have done for generations.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend; he is spot on. The deer population in Buckinghamshire is now completely out of control, and damaging farmland, habitats and the safety of biodiversity across the county, left, right and centre. Of course, foxes and other predatory animals do enormous damage to our wildlife.
That is the point I was building up to. These factors are so much more important in the decline of the native species. If we take shoots and people interested in shoots who have a passion for conservation out of the picture, the habitats will get worse, not better. I respectfully disagree with the petitioners that this is a problem that needs legislation. Conservation is inherent to the shooting community in the United Kingdom. If shooting declines and more and more unnecessary restrictions are put on the shooting community, species will go into a much worse decline.
Thank you, Dame Caroline, for chairing this debate. I thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for securing it.
The protection of nature and biodiversity is something that my constituents know I take a great interest in. I am also a serving member of the Environmental Audit Committee. This afternoon I am going to disagree with what many of my colleagues have said. As the Member for North Norfolk, I wanted to speak in this debate for two reasons. First, my constituency had the second highest number of signatures to the petition, at 602. Secondly, Norfolk is one of the many places in the UK where woodcock are known to breed, likely due to its vast swathes of woodland. As breeding woodcock are stationary and we are seeing large declines in population numbers, it is only right that we should look at limiting the shooting season.
Those of us who watched BBC’s “Winterwatch”—as I suspect Mr Packham, who presented it, probably did—will know that Norfolk featured heavily. It was intriguing to see the sheer variety of migratory birds the UK sees over the winter period. Woodcock numbers swell to over a million as their European visitors migrate here for the winter. However, that species decline is still noticeable and worrying. Migratory numbers swelling and mixing with our own indigenous birds is disguising the reality of the situation. The shooting season starts before these migratory birds arrive, often leaving the resident and breeding birds to be shot at the beginning of the season.
Woodcock are a red list species. The decline in the breeding population that remains in the UK once their migratory cousins move on is severe, which we have seen. According to the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, there is currently a breeding population of approximately 55,000 pairs, from the last roding counts in 2013. I am sure we will all be interested to see the new data set released later this year. Even so, with up to 100,000 birds in an annual woodcock shooting bag, it is not an unreasonable estimate that the number of woodcock will have seen another dramatic decline.
Speaking personally, I do not see a particular reason why we have to shoot these birds. I have gone shooting myself in the past—Members will not be surprised to hear that, bearing in mind the suit I am wearing this afternoon. I have obviously lived in a rural area all my life. The shoots that I went on were responsible. When woodcock were having a bad season, we did not shoot them. Guess what: nobody batted an eyelid. It was not a problem. I do understand the shooting season and the shooting of game, particularly pheasants, but they are shot to be eaten. It is an important part of the rural, countryside life. That key distinction is important here.
A pheasant, for instance, is a bird that is reared. Woodcocks are wild, distinctively beautiful birds. Much of the population of pheasants—three quarters, in fact—is reared and released for shooting. With this in mind, it is clear that game birds intended to be shot have a greater chance for their population levels to be maintained in order to sustain shooting, and they are actually a real food source. Woodcock are not reared. They are not a substantial food source. They are not a pest. It is clear that the breeding population is in decline.
It would remiss of me not to acknowledge that the decline in suitable habitat should also be taken into consideration, as many Members have said. I note that regional variations in sustaining woodlands may be a factor in the disturbance of these birds. However, in order for the UK to protect resident and breeding woodcock, and to allow their numbers to thrive, there should be some active initiative to support this red list species. That is the point I am making: it would contribute towards helping the birds.
I want to place on the record that I am pleased that the north Norfolk forest plan will provide 1,249 hectares of coniferous and deciduous woodland by 2028, which will help to protect, maintain and enhance priority habitats and species. Additionally, it is positive to see the Government, Forestry England and local authorities push towards a long-term vision for trees and woodlands, which will have enormous benefits for biodiversity, species recovery and climate change. However, it will naturally take time to implement, as finding a long-term and lasting solution always takes more time than we think.
In summary, looking to the short term, rather than to long-term ambitions, is something that we can do right now to prevent the further decline of resident and breeding woodcock on our shores. I believe that considering limiting the shooting season for woodcock can be a decent step in the right direction.
I thank Jonathan Gullis for leading the debate, and for making such a comprehensive and well-balanced speech. This has been a very well-informed debate, with a wide range of views.
I have to admit that I have not had much time to prepare for the debate, as I just returned from Ukraine yesterday. The Eurasian woodcock can be found from Odesa to the Belarusian border, and from Lviv to the Donbas, which ties today’s debate to my journey last week. I led an aid convoy with the hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) and my hon. Friend Anna McMorrin. We went from the UK to Ukraine via France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Poland. Members might wonder why I am saying this, but we may find woodcock migrating through the exact same route that my colleagues and I took last week, giving us a rare insight into the life of the Eurasian woodcock, its pattern of migration, the habitats it lives in, and the disruption that the war in Ukraine is causing for bird populations. BirdLife International states that:
“Aerial bombing, use of drones, artillery shelling and all other existing types of ground combat and mining destroy not only settlements with all the infrastructure, but also the natural environment. It is safe to assume that military actions will significantly affect the state of bird populations in Ukraine.”
Dame Caroline, I do not want to stretch your patience, so I will return to the subject of the petition: the open season for woodcock. The UK has two types of woodcock: resident and breeding woodcock breed in the British Isles and are largely sedentary, whereas migrant woodcock, which spend the winter in the UK, return to northern and eastern Europe to breed, on which I have expanded enough. I have spent the morning looking at woodcock, and they are striking birds. Their feathers are various shades of brown, including chocolatey brown and a striking chestnut brown, and they have long, thin, sharp beaks and unusually deep black eyes. They are night-time birds and eat worms, beetles, spiders, caterpillars, fly larvae and small snails. They breed in the spring and summer, and put on quite a display by flying in big circles at dusk, creaking and grunting as they go.
The reason we are here today is quite simple: the UK woodcock population is declining and has red list status from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. A national survey, which is a collaboration between the Gaming & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology, is conducted every 10 years. The last survey, in 2013, found 55,000 males, and it is believed that the number has since declined. Migratory woodcock are much more numerous and arrive here in early December. They swell the population considerably, and data from the GWCT shows that around 8% of shot woodcock are resident, with the remaining 92% migratory.
The petition requests that the start of the shooting season be delayed from
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation said:
“The shooting community has placed a voluntary moratorium on shooting woodcock until the 1st of December to ensure the protection of resident woodcock and focus shooting on migrant visitors”.
The RSPB has stated:
“The RSPB supports the call for an alteration to the start of the woodcock hunting season (to
Given that bird conservation and shooting groups seem to agree on the threat to the resident population and the need for a shorter season, does the Minister agree that there seems to be a lot of merit in the RSPB’s proposal of a temporary measure on those lines? Should it not be considered to allow the full impact of a later start to be properly studied and assessed? The temporary measure would have a positive impact on resident woodcock, and would satisfy all stakeholders, giving us a chance to pause and do what we can to protect those resident woodcock.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline—for the first time in this Chamber, I think. It has been an incredible pleasure to hear talk about woodcock in such detail; that has certainly never happened to me before, and I have been a Member of Parliament for over six years. I am pleased to say that in the Lake district, where I live, we do have woodcock. Reading the brief this morning as I was travelling down on the train, I had never realised that woodcock were largely nocturnal. We have all learned a tremendous amount about the woodcock; they are a beautiful bird with a particularly distinctive long beak used for foraging—of earthworms, typically.
All Members who have spoken recognised the decline of woodcock, but also of nature more widely. I thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for opening this debate and giving us reason to discuss the subject. I also thank Wild Justice for its campaigning on the matter, and the 108,000 people who have taken time and interest in the conservation of the woodcock—142 of those who signed the petition were my constituents from Copeland.
There are wider issues to consider, and I will talk through some aspects of the need to improve our environment, as set out in the recently published Environmental Improvement Plan 2023. There are 262 pages, across 10 goals, that go into detail to discuss the measures we will be taking to halt the decline of nature by 2030, based on a 2022 baseline, and to increase its abundance. The plan is about things such as increasing the tree canopy cover to 16.5%; improving the quality of water, air and soil; restoring our peatlands; and improving and protecting hedgerows, which are vital. Those are just some of the measures detailed in the plan, which also includes creating 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat and having a much better understanding of the over 4,000 sites of special scientific interest, covering over 1 million hectares of land. Those things are all set out in that document, which also builds on the Environment Act 2021.
In response to this debate, as the Minister I am working very closely with Natural England. It is currently reviewing all of the evidence, and we will make a science-led decision after that. I want to reflect on Member’s contributions today. My right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill, my hon. Friend Sir Bill Wiggin and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) all talked about the value of game. I eat a predominantly plant-based diet, but I also eat meat. When I am choosing which meat to eat, I much prefer what has come from a locally-reared animal, ideally a Cumbrian one.
I enjoy game meat because I much prefer to eat meat from an animal that has had some time in the wild. One of the real priorities for me in DEFRA is understanding how we can make the supply chain better so that people can purchase game meat, particularly venison, more easily. We have never had as many deer, but it is not particularly easy to buy or sell venison meat. It is certainly not widely available in the canteens of our public services, yet it is a low-fat, high-protein, nutritious meat, available in abundance. There would be multiple sustainability benefits in us making progress on that mission.
In terms of today’s debate, organisations such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust are playing an important, much appreciated role, as has been discussed. I read with interest its 35-page “Conserving Our Woodcock” leaflet. I acknowledge the research that has been undertaken and, most crucially, its very clear message: do not shoot woodcock before
The more abundant migratory woodcock population is unlikely to arrive in the UK until early December. Avoiding shooting the UK’s limited native resident breeding birds is really important. That is the clear ask from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and other Members present. I do not think there is any dissent on that matter. The dissent is perhaps on whether to legislate on that. That decision will be made on the basis of science once we have the assessment from Natural England.
My hon. Friend will have noticed the comments on climate change and therefore, before setting anything in legislation, should she not bear in mind the flexibility that we will need as the climate changes?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a valid point. All those considerations will be taken into account before any decisions are made. However, as all Members across the House have stated, the more urgent matter is how we improve the habitat, the foraging, and how we really consider the conservation not just of woodcock, but of so many other species. That is also detailed in the environmental improvement plan.
In conclusion, I have already set out that Natural England will be undertaking that study. Our decision on what to take forward will be based on the science but, in addition to the environmental improvement plan, I draw Members’ attention to the huge changes we are making with environmental land management schemes. We are moving away from the common agricultural policy, which did little to incentivise innovation or improve productivity on farms and in food production. Instead, we are moving to countryside stewardship, the sustainable farming incentive and the landscape recovery scheme. Those three measures across 70% of the land in England—that is what is farmed—will have a tremendous impact on the conservation of the woodcock and many other species on the red list, and on conservation and biodiversity more generally in this country. I will end on that note, Dame Caroline, and I thank you for your time in this debate.
This has been a good debate—one that perhaps does not get televised enough for people to see the quality of debate, discussions, stats and facts. I thank all Members for contributing their different ideas. Olivia Blake mentioned her 370 constituents who signed the petition. She also talked about tree nurseries, which were brought up by Wild Justice. About 13% of our land is forestry land whereas France has over 30%. Such land is part of a wider strategy that we need to tackle not only to create the breeding ground for woodcock but to improve our native wildlife as well.
My right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill made a fair point about the red list and how the woodcock internationally is not at risk, but, as Wild Justice would point out, we are talking specifically about the native woodcock and its decline, which is why the date of
Jim Shannon talked about planting 3,500 trees on his farmland. He is a doughty champion for Strangford; it could not find a better representative. I am mindful of the time because at half past six he has some very big decisions to make about an issue that is important to him, his constituency and the people of Northern Ireland that he serves. I want to make sure that he and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party have the space and time that the Prime Minister has offered to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations that have come forward today. The hon. Member’s explanations of the conservation that he and his community undertake in the woodland and farmland that they look after were fair and balanced. Shooters are conservationists, and they do care. Yes, they have their sport, but at the same time they want to see their area protected.
I thank my hon. Friend David Simmonds for his balanced views. I always fear following him in a debate, so I was glad to be in front of him on this occasion. His arguments were fair. My hon. Friend Sir Bill Wiggin has far more years’ experience on this topic than I have. He outlined a fair challenge for the Department: if change is to come and we introduce a statutory instrument to enforce the date of
I thank my hon. Friend Greg Smith for his contribution. The overwhelming majority of shooters are responsible folk and take shooting seriously, but, sadly, there is always a minority that takes advantage and sometimes goes further than it should. That is why we have to sometimes legislate to make sure there are boundaries. My hon. Friend Duncan Baker is a doughty champion who raises tens of thousands of pounds for local charities. He is always passionate about his constituency, as am I about Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. He has done fantastic work. The fact that he has listened to his 600-plus constituents who signed the petition and has turned up here today is positive.
I have outlined my position. There is fairness in expecting, in the short term, a statutory instrument to be implemented by the Secretary of State. However, a wider strategy is needed. That cannot simply be put on the shooters’ doorstep. We need to look at forestry, the deer population and habitat as well. The Minister outlined the new scheme that is coming into play and has been received positively by one of my local farmers, Councillor Janine Bridges, who represents Great Chell and Packmoor. It is exactly what responsible farmers and landowners are doing. I thank Members for being here. I am grateful for the time and space to talk about this important topic.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 619615, relating to the open season for woodcock.