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The Ecology of a Cryptic Game Species

Project Overview

Woodcock PhD Project

The Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola is a unique wader that breeds in woodland but for most of the year feeds at night outside woodland, typically on farmland. It breeds across Europe with strongholds in Scandinavia and north-west Russia. It winters in Ireland, Britain and other southern European countries. The European breeding population is listed as “Secure” at EU level and as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s Global Red List. However,  the Irish breeding population has undergone a severe decline in its range over the last 40 years, resulting in it being added to the Red List of breeding birds in Ireland.

In Ireland the reasons for the decline are unknown but are likely to include changes in habitat linked to more intensive farming, climate change and predation pressure. The Woodcock is also a popular quarry species in Ireland but there is little information on the sustainability of hunting by local and tourist hunters.

Woodcock population ecology has been addressed in parts of Europe, however we have limited information from in Ireland. Better information on the factors influencing Woodcock distribution and abundance, as well as an understanding of  the size of the shooting bag and what percentage of this constitutes Irish breeding birds, is urgently required to ensure robust management recommendations and initiatives.

This PhD project aims to examine the factors influencing the distribution of Woodcock during the breeding and winter seasons and model the sustainability of hunting on resident and migratory Woodcock.

Woodcock Breeding Ecology

This PhD project aims to coordinate a national census of breeding woodcock across Ireland and model the distribution in relation to its habitat preferences and provide a baseline for future monitoring. Using key features from this model along with climate variables, the project will attempt to explain the apparent contraction in breeding range over the last 40 years.

The distribution of Eurasian woodcock is extremely large (over 15 million km2) stretching from Japan to Ireland with a population estimates from 10-26 million individuals (Wetlands International 2015). The breeding range covers much of Ireland and Britain, however, data from Breeding Atlas conducted between 1968 and 2011 show there has been a considerable reduction in the breeding range. As there has been significant change to the Atlas survey methods it is not completely clear if the contraction is  due to a decrease in breeding distribution or if the change in survey method is contributing to the range contraction we see in the Atlas data.

Woodcock are a notoriously cryptic species and their nocturnal habits make it difficult to monitor the breeding population using traditional survey methods. A special survey method for breeding Woodcock was devised in UK by Andrew Hoodless of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which uses the counts of the roding flights, undertaken by males at dusk and dawn, to provide a baseline estimate of the number of males present in an area.

This PhD project aims to undertake the first Irish breeding Woodcock Survey to provide a baseline against which to assess future population change. To get involved with the Breeding Woodcock Survey please click on the link below!

Woodcock Breeding Survey

Winter Ecology

The project also aims to coordinate a winter census of woodcock across Ireland to estimate the number of birds that migrate into Ireland each winter. Woodcock foraging behaviour will also be examined and the effect of changes in land-use on food availability and habitat selection will be investigated.

Each winter there is a large influx of migrants that boosts the resident population. It is not known how many migrants arrive to Ireland. The origins of these migrants is also largely unknown. This project aims to quantify the proportion of migrants through examining bag totals and conducting stable isotope analysis on feathers from the wings of individuals that have been shot.

The project also aims to determine habitat use and foraging behaviour of wintering woodcock, which are invertebrate specialists, feeding mostly on earthworms. The intensification of agriculture and climate change are likely to significantly impact food availability and suitable habitat. Woodcock feed largely on fields at night in winter. Detailed habitat use and foraging behaviour will be determined by attaching small GPS loggers to radio tags and using radio tracked woodcock to investigate feeding activity and habitat selection.

Hunting Sustainability

As previously mentioned, Woodcock are an important quarry species but harvest rates and the effect on Woodcock populations are not known in Ireland.

The project aims to examine regional variation in bag sizes and how this variation relates to winter distribution. To effectively model the impacts of shooting and different shooting scenarios it will be necessary to collect data on the numbers of Woodcock present (seen), frequency of shoots, type of shooting (rough verses commercial) and the proportion of birds seen that are shot. Bag totals and typical harvest rate according to shooting type would enable the likely impact of shooting on adult survival to be modelled. Population estimates from winter and breeding surveys will help to determine the proportion of individuals harvested by Irish shooters from population of Eurasian woodcock.

UCC Woodcock Research Group

  • Jessica Perrott
  • Luke Harman
  • Professor John Quinn
  • Professor John O'Halloran

Contact us

  • Address: School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) | University College Cork | North Mall Campus | Ireland
  • For further information on the Woodcock PhD project, please email 


UCC Ornithology Research Group

School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UCC North Mall Campus, North Mall, Cork City,