Woodcock petition debate: through the looking glass with the shooting lobby

On the 27th of February, Parliament debated petition 619615 ‘Limit the shooting season of Woodcock‘, which was launched by Wild Justice and signed by 107, 916 members of the public. The petition asked that the (so-called) shooting season for Woodcock, a species in serious decline here, should be moved back from 01 October (it starts on 01 Sept in Scotland) to 01 December to ‘protect’ resident birds as by then some Woodock from the much larger eastern and northern Europe populations will have arrived in the UK to avoid harsh winters and (in theory) will be shot instead. The Defra Secretary of State has powers to vary the shooting season. We have already written our opinion against shooting Woodcock in Defra not giving Woodcock the protection they need.


Inverse reality? False narrative? Fake news? ‘Alternative facts’? Democracy, Jim, but not as we understand it?

Hmm, let’s just go with ‘through the looking-glass with the shooting lobby‘, a world where things look familiar yet are somehow turned inside-out. Where a Countryside Alliance briefing sheet – of all things – is held up as gospel! Where some men seriously think that real ‘conservationists’ carry guns, that ‘voluntary restraint’ on using lead shot is a success because 95% of shooters still use it rather than the 97% last time a survey was done, and where to save animals we need to shoot more animals rather than less. All very odd…

If it didn’t mean being put up against a wall with your arm twisted painfully behind your back while an officer of the law purrs into your ear that ‘We don’t put up with interruptions like that here sir” you’d be unable to resist changing the classic improv ‘Yes, And!’ game into ‘Yes, BUT!’ and shouting very loudly and very often ‘are you being serious, mate…!’

Welcome, in other words, to Parliament and a gameshow featuring a gang of MPs knocking down petition 619615 by cherry-picking from briefing sheets knocked out by pro-shooting lobbyists from the Countryside Alliance, BASC, and GWCT.

Though in whatever passes for reality in Westminster Hall perhaps the game here was actually a numbers sweepstake. How many omissions can be used to justify how many half-truths in ninety minutes. Whatever the outcome one side was determined to be the winner, and the loser – well, that would be the poor old Woodcock who (as in life (and death) now) loses every time…

The Woodcock

Talking of which, I’m going to make an assumption here that most readers of this post will have an interest in this petition and will already know what a Woodcock is (if not there’s one in the image and please see our Woodcock species account).

woodcock in long grass

Conservative MPs on the left of Westminster Hall certainly seemed very eager to prove that they did indeed know what a Woodcock is, telling each other what BASC and the GWCT had told them, that Woodcock are the only British shorebird that breeds in woods, that they are brown and well-hidden until flushed by your gun dog, that they have long bills that they use to probe into soil for earthworms (isn’t nature incredible, MPs gasped in awe!), and that when you get to see them up close (like, really dead close) they’re quite beautiful little birds.

And while it was true that scientists at the likes of the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB have said that shooting British Woodcock was absolutely not on (they were Red-listed in 2015 after all), foreign Woodcock were so plentiful over here after December 1st that shooting tens of thousands of them hardly mattered at all.

No one even tried to explain how shooters could tell the difference between the apparently much-loved Woodcock that belong here in Britain and Woodcock from the continent (they’re identical in every way), but hey ho, if Woodcock are going to cross the Channel to avoid freezing winters and being shot at somewhere else, what where our own nature-loving shooters supposed to do about that…?

Honestly, the love in the room for the UK’s Woodcock was palpable. Shooters, they just adore birds with all their flinty hearts.

The debate

This was actually my third parliamentary debate in twelve months (hard to believe, as I’m still fuming about the non-debate on banning Snares that took place only a few weeks ago), and while the seasons pass outside, inside there is a rather static and familiar tableau. On one side of the Hall an identikit wall of MPs congratulating themselves on the quality of debate and how well-briefed they’ve been by the shooting industry, while on the other a handful of largely non-Tory MPs doing their best to counter while knowing deep down that there is little they can do to help wildlife/the environment/the climate/the world in general until the gentlemen’s club on the other side is broken up and sent back to their various towns and villages never to be heard of again.

Which meant that the members for North Hereford, Buckinghamshire, Scarborough and Whitby, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner were all there again, settled into their favourite seats like they were in the prefect’s common room. Even the florid member for Strangford, the DUP’s Jim Shannon had turned up again, reading in his whispery monotone an essay he’d written about planting trees and what fun shooting stuff was, before hurrying off to argue on behalf of a tiny minority against the Windsor Framework...

I won’t run through the full list, but pretty much the same MPs who’d told us that the same lobbyists had told them ‘trail hunting’ was already well-enough regulated were the same MPs who had told us that the same lobbyists had told them that snares were already well-enough regulated a few months later and were now saying much the same about Woodcock. Shooting was, they assured each other, already the most regulated something or other, and shooters were just the sweetest bunch of law-abiding and thoughtful chaps a man could meet. Big hugs.

In writing this petition Wild Justice was just motivated by politics, claimed one politician speaking on behalf of political lobbyists from the shooting industry. They were just out to put pressure on the shooting industry, they said of serious people who just want to protect Woodcock and really don’t have that much of a problem with the shooting industry as long as it stops breaking the law. Despite being Red-listed and in serious decline, the income from shooting had been to the long-term benefit of Woodcock they cliamed. Shooters should just be allowed to get on with it. Cooperation, we were told, leads to better outcomes than changing laws. Besides which, what law would we all like brought in to punish someone for shooting a Woodcock ‘out of season’? Curtailing a shooter’s freedom to shoot birds? Ridiculous, a law for law’s sake…

Members of the same tranche of MPs that hurriedly pushed through legislation to stop the general public from exercising their right to protest were now telling us that there was already too much legislation in the UK? Hmm. I could almost hear a sigh coming from the direction of the Wild Justice team, and in particular WJ’s and Raptor Persecution UK’s Dr Ruth Tingay, who has devoted a huge chunk of her life documenting in detail just how often the good old boys of the shooting industry break the law.

We all know what happens when hunts are ‘just allowed to get on with it’. Snares are subject to Codes of Practice that even government research admits are often not complied with. And – more to the point – laws protecting wild birds from being shot outside the arbitrary ‘seasons’ demanded by the shooting industry ALREADY EXIST! Did BASC and GWCT forget to mention the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 in their detailed briefs for MPs, or was that another ‘omissions card’ MPs were playing?

As the online report of the debate in Hansard now shows, time and time again MPs who espoused their membership of shooting organisations painted the rosiest picture of chummy shooters looking after wildlife. Great shots to a man (despite all the evidence of poor shots wounding birds), exercising all sorts of self-control when it came to shooting ‘British’ Woodcock (despite an article in Shooting Times just a few weeks back on shooting Woodcock in November).

No, in the Kafka-esque topsy-turvy world of shooting they conjured up, without shooting them Woodcock would be in terminal decline. In fact, if they didn’t keep shooting them, Woodcock might even disappear because shooter conservationists would just rip up the woodlands they’d planted and throw them out with the other toys in the pram.

‘Conservation’. Has a word ever been so stolen and subverted? There was so much emphasis put on how going out and killing things was ‘conservation’ if you’d planted a few trees first, I idly began to wonder whether that meant I would get away with shooting every Bue Tit that came to a garden feeder I’d put up on the grounds that just by putting the feeder there I was actually a conservationist doing them a favour…

Inside the looking glass indeed.

On the other side of the table, Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake (above) and Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy put up a valiant fight on behalf of the Woodcock, but (and I’ve met both of them) neither have mastered the effortless smirk of those in power opposite. They are far too honest, too full of humility and humanity. They looked desperate to help but in effect were the players at the bottom of the Bully and they knew it. They’re heroes for even turning up, but were simply overwhelmed by the men in blue suits on the other team.

More nonsense from the shooting lobbyists

On and on went the spokespeople for BASC and the GWCT.

The answer to ‘more Woodcock’ was not NOT shooting them, but creating more habitat (presumably on shooting estates and this from a government that has missed every environmental target it has ever set itself and if still in power would undoubtedly miss the targets they’ve set for 2030). Of course, the real loss of habitat problem was not caused by us/farming/urban development, but by deer. For the shooting lobbyist, deer are well on the way to becoming the next scapegoat for ‘countryside decline’ and ‘biodiversity loss’, nibbling their way into the spaces typically reserved by shooting and agriculture for foxes and birds of prey. We must shoot more deer, they’re out of control chorused the MPs. This, you may not need reminding, coming from the same party that almost exactly a week ago ruled out the reintroduction of wolves and lynx, natural predators of – er, deer, of course.

Trudy Harrison, the Defra minister who was (on paper anyway) overseeing all this nonsense jumped at the chance to agree about shooting deer. While my diet is largely plant-based, she said, I do love me a bit of deer (I may be colloquialising). She seemed to suggest that it should be on the menu in hospitals. Really? Assuming you can actually get into a hospital these days, I’m personally not sure that serving up some lead shot with the vegetables is actually what a sick patient needs, but then I’ve not spent twelve years running down the health system, so what do I know…

The elephant in the room

In a debate lasting an hour and a half, what wasn’t discussed? That would be, ‘A Woodcock’s right to life’.

Ms Harrison summed up the ‘debate’ with this paragraph:

“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 1 December. It could not be clearer. The reason for that is that the likelihood will be that native woodcock will be shot because the migratory woodcock starts to head over in perhaps late October or November, but more likely in December, as the temperature drops in other parts of Europe.”

The starting point with this government is always ‘when to shoot’ not ‘why shoot?’.

Forget whether they are common or rare, resident or a migrant, beautiful or plain, there is no good reason on the planet why a ‘shooting season’ should exist for any bird in 2023. None. Or even why shooters should be handed an opportunity to debate in Parliament when they should be allowed to kill them (oh, and shooters are very, very careful not to mention the word ‘kill’, far too close to the bone).

Birds have a right to life. They are sentient, intelligent animals. The debate that Woodcock actually needed to take place was whether taking the life of a bird for ‘fun’ should be allowed full stop. The entire 90 minutes – despite the rhetoric about conservation and statistics and data and the variable that was climate change – was framed in terms of ‘what do shooters want’, with no consideration whatsoever of what the Woodcock themselves might want.

Shooters will laugh at that. What, take into account what a bird wants? Are you serious, mate? Yes, very. And so is Protect the Wild. If you’re reading this, chances are that you probably think it too (or are at least beginning to).

The shooting industry is a horrible, selfish, exploitative industry built on taking and cruelty and suffering. On assumptions – even now – that we humans can do what we want when we want to whatever we want. It needs to be ended.

It won’t be easy. It’s organised, it’s legitimised, and MPs support it, but does that make it ‘too difficult’ to take on? If everyone who had opposed fox hunting had thought ‘it’s just too hard’ would we right now be talking to fox hunters in Parliament about maybe not killing fox cubs until they were a few weeks older or maybe hoping that the number of foxes each hunt kills could be subject to some sort of voluntary restraint?

The shooting industry may hope that it will take at least as long to change public attitudes about shooting birds as it took to change attitudes about hunting foxes, but we don’t think so. We are all far more aware of what’s going around us than we were even a decade ago. Far more of us care about the life around us than ever before. We are largely already primed to question and fight back against the outdated attitudes on display in parliamentary ‘debates’ like this.

It’s not too difficult at all.


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