Unfair game: the birds that can still be shot in the UK


To witness migrating birds, often of conservation concern, being shot out of the sky in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is a harrowing experience. But at least we should be able to console ourselves that Britain's own wildlife protection laws would prevent the shooting of Red-listed or Amber-listed or Globally Threatened species when they reach our shores …

However, a number of waders, wildfowl and gamebirds remain on the UK quarry list even though they have in some cases undergone serious declines. With this in mind, perhaps the time has come to review the shooting of these species and consider whether they should be given better protection.

There is no evidence to suggest that the declines in these species have been caused primarily by the shooting of them within the UK. Equally, though, neither was I able to find any evidence that land management for these species on estates where they are shot is helping to boost populations, or that removing them from the quarry list would lead to changes in land management that would precipitate further declines.

While European Golden Plover currently has a green conservation status in the UK, data from the Wetland Bird Survey shows it is declining. (Steve Race).

There can be little doubt that some Biodiversity Action Plan species such as Grey Partridge and Red Grouse can benefit from land management on shoots. There are very high densities of Red Grouse on driven grouse moors, but although the benefit to upland breeding waders may be real, it is also incidental.

Three wader species remain on the quarry list in England, Wales and Scotland – Eurasian Woodcock, Common Snipe and European Golden Plover – with a fourth in Northern Ireland in the form of Jack Snipe. The justifications put forward for retaining these species on the quarry list are that shooting them is a traditional activity, that to shoot them is a real challenge of marksmanship, that they are delicious to eat, and that once a species is removed from the quarry list it is unlikely to ever be reinstated. The last argument was certainly made by politicians opposed to the removal of Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank and Western Capercaillie from the quarry list.

The fact that these three species are no longer legal quarry shows that the game laws can be amended, although they maintain an anachronistic flavour, with an open season still in force for Black Grouse in the New Forest and on Exmoor, where the species has been extirpated for decades.


Woodcock down

Eurasian Woodcock is in decline as a breeding bird in Britain, with the population falling by 29% from 78,000 males to 56,000 over a 10-year period between 2003 and 2013. Therefore it is a Red-listed species in the UK. The wintering population is much larger, though, and many birders are surprised to learn that it is by far the most numerous wintering wader in the UK, with more than 1 million birds arriving from Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Russia. The populations in these countries are considered to be stable by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, although in 2017 woodcock shooters were urged to show restraint as a result of poor recruitment in the breeding areas and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) suggests that there have been moderate declines in these areas.

It is obviously difficult to differentiate between resident woodcock and migrants, but as there have been very few ringing recoveries of Continental woodcock before November it is likely that most of the birds shot in October will be British breeders. Research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, using isotope analysis, suggests that only 2% of Eurasian Woodcock shot are British breeders.

Eurasian Woodcock is Red-listed in the UK, but remains legal quarry (Lisa Geoghegan).

There is some commercialisation of woodcock shooting in Britain, for example woodcock-shooting experiences are offered on Islay, where we are assured that a team of four guns would average 20 birds shot per day, with the chance of taking up to 90 per day. Meanwhile, holidays in Devon are advertised as giving the chance to shoot Common Snipe, Eurasian Woodcock and European Golden Plover. It is also possible to buy woodcock for the table, although the numbers sold appear to be only in the low hundreds. It was suggested to me that fewer woodcock are being shot during pheasant drives, although game bag data between 1960 and 2006 gives a general upward trend over this period, but perhaps reaching a plateau in the most recent decade.

Common Snipe is a localised and scarce breeder in the UK with a declining population of 76,000 pairs, but with a far larger wintering population than many birders realise. As with woodcock there is some commercialisation of snipe shooting, with this species often offered alongside the chance to shoot woodcock. In Northern Ireland it is still legal to shoot the secretive Jack Snipe, which given the size of the bird would seem a peculiarly pointless activity.

European Golden Plover is another scarce breeding bird, with 23,000 pairs, but a larger wintering population of 420,000. It is likely that many birds shot are incidental quarry during grouse shoots, and so will be taken from the relatively small British breeding population.

A moratorium on shooting the Red-listed Black Grouse is in place, though some argue that shooting the species will lead to an increase in its numbers (Julian Thomas).

Black Grouse has been subject to a voluntary moratorium on shooting for 20 years following a catastrophic decline in the first half of the 1990s, with the population of lekking males crashing from 25,000 in 1990 to 6,510 in 1996. Some argue that the recovery of the species might be helped by allowing shooting again, with estates incentivised to manage land for Black Grouse and serious money provided by foreign sportsmen desperate to shoot a 'trophy blackcock'. These people have made the argument that some aspects of land management for Red Grouse are potentially inimical to Black Grouse populations. It is true, however, that the steepest declines in Black Grouse populations took place when the species was still very much a target for shooting, which perhaps undermines the argument that shooting is necessary in order to conserve the species.

Unfortunately, in spite of the moratorium Black Grouse is still shot on 'walk up days', and greyhens in particular are liable to be shot by accident during Red Grouse shoots. It has to be admitted that the bird identification skills of many shooters are poor – I have picked out Jack Snipe from bags of Common Snipe, and seen Stock Doves regularly shot alongside Woodpigeons, with the hunters completely unaware that they had shot something other than their intended quarry. There is, of course, no offence if a protected species is shot accidentally, although birders might have little sympathy with the wildfowler who was acquitted for shooting an Avocet on the grounds that the intended target was a Eurasian Curlew, which at the time was a quarry species. Perhaps the Avocet was flying upside down!

Some rarer species are often shot by accident, with birds misidentified – or not identified at all – before being gunned down (Robin Chittenden).

Ptarmigan is Amber-listed and has a declining population of around 10,000 pairs in the Scottish Highlands. The species is too thinly distributed and found in unsuitable terrain for driven shooting, so is shot by walking up.

One might wonder why anyone would want to shoot a bird that can be so tame that it can be approached to within a few metres, but I am assured by those who have shot them that they are a difficult and challenging target once persuaded to take flight. For those who relish such a challenge there is commercial shooting of Ptarmigan in Scotland available through companies such as International Big Game and Bird Hunting Ltd. It would be hard to argue that any land management to boost Ptarmigan populations takes place as a result of the species being on the quarry list.


A rare quarry

The not-so-Common Pochard remains a quarry species in spite of being one of the fastest-declining wildfowl species in Europe. The population has fallen to the extent that it is now listed as Globally Vulnerable by the IUCN. It is highly probable that shooting outside the UK is contributing to this decline, so it seems indefensible that a species with a British breeding population of around 600 pairs and such an unfavourable conservation status should still remain on the quarry list. In 2019 the EU recommended that Common Pochard should be removed from all quarry lists, and as a consequence even the Italian Ministry of the Environment has now given this species complete protection.

 Common Pochard is declining in the UK, so it seems indefensible that it remains on the quarry species list (Julian Thomas).

The supremely elegant Northern Pintail remains firmly on the quarry list for wildfowlers, despite being the fastest-declining dabbling duck in the UK, with the number of wintering birds having halved since 2006. The reasons for this downturn are unclear, and it is possible that with increasing wintering populations in The Netherlands birds are simply relocating there, perhaps as a result of milder winters.

Russian White-fronted Goose is now a scarce visitor, with around 2,000 birds returning each winter to a reduced number of traditional sites, but it remains a legitimate target. Rather larger numbers of Greenland White-fronted Geese – around 25,000 – winter mainly in the Inner Hebrides, but paradoxically while the Scottish birds enjoyed complete protection the tiny Welsh population was still a legal target for hunters until 2019, although a voluntary moratorium was in place before this. Evidence that there will be resistance to any future changes to the game laws can be shown by the hostile response of the Countryside Alliance, which described the decision to give Greenland White-fronted Goose complete protection as 'unnecessary meddling'.

The decision to give Greenland White-fronted Goose complete protection was described as 'unnecessary meddling' by the Countryside Alliance (Julian Thomas).

In researching this article it came as a surprise to discover that virtually nothing is known about how many of these vulnerable species are being shot in the UK. If the number is tiny and insignificant one might justifiably ask what is the point of them remaining on the quarry list, but if the number is significant then it would be a cause for real concern. Either way, perhaps now is the time to apply the precautionary principle and give protection to all these Globally Threatened or Red- or Amber-listed species that are currently targets for the shooting community.

Written by: Julian Thomas