An odd thread appeared on Twitter over the weekend, which was started by Scottish campaigner Andy Paton but soon derailed by – well, it was hard to tell really…Andy had quite rightly pointed out that shooters were being asked not to go out killing endangered hard-weather movement birds like Woodcock and Common Snipe, because of – er, the hard-weather. Which makes huge sense if you’re actually interested in the conservation and protection of wild birds, but of course not so much if you’re a shooter and all that matters is the opportunity to blast a few half-starving birds out of the sky, birds which had arrived from regions to the north and to the east where the ground had frozen over meaning they can’t feed.
The ‘odd’ part of the thread was the ‘contribution’ (which is being kind) from Phil ‘Beware the Woke’ Woods, who rashly decided he was the right person to teach Andy a lesson in ornithology, declaring in sneering terms that “Woodcock and snipe are the same bird and it is not endangered” They’re not, and they are…
What prompted Mr Woods to comment is hard to work out. Judging by his Twitter feed he doesn’t appear to be a shooter or to have any interest in wildlife beyond his horse, but he jumped in anyway (which we’ll get back to). He has now deleted his injudicious tweet after birdwatcher after birdwatcher lined up to put him right – not before many of us captured it for posterity as a screenshot though. For the record, of course Woodcock and snipe are not the same species. They belong to the same family, the Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies), but are very different birds. In fact, there are even two different snipe species found here in the UK: Common Snipe (a summer breeder and winter visitor) and Jack Snipe (a passage/winter visitor), both of which are shot by the sort of shooter that can’t tell the difference between the two and presumably couldn’t care less that Jack Snipes are fully protected here.
As importantly, Woodock and Common Snipe are Endangered, at least here in the UK. Woodock were recently Red Listed (the highest threat level) as a consequence of severe declines in their breeding range. Common Snipes have lost large areas of wetland breeding habitat and are Amber Listed having undergone moderate declines in the past twenty-five years, with particularly steep declines in lowland wet grassland.
Now, you may well say, ‘That’s all very well, but not everyone is a birder‘. Of course not, and not even birders can keep up with all the changes that take place in the conservation statuses of once widespread and common birds anyway. But if you can tweet then you have access to the internet. If you have access to the internet you can look up the facts for yourself from reputable websites like those of the RSPB and BTO.
This isn’t a general comment about education or the lack of it (no curriculum has ever included a proper course on bird identification) incidentally. No, the problem here – as exemplified by QAnon conspirators, ‘antifa patriots’, anti-vaxxers and the rest – is that anyone with an unqualified opinion feels qualified to weigh in whenever they feel like it. We’re not for one minute defaming Mr Woods by lumping him in with those muppets, just pointing out that the internet is awash with lobbyists and ‘commentators’ who see anyone standing up for wildlife as ‘woke’ and somehow trampling all over their human rights – in much the same way that Lord ‘Beefy’ Botham did recently (see – Language Matters | ‘Eco woke’) and how in the past lobbyists attempted to repeal the Hunting Act when it first came into force on the grounds that it interfered with their ‘rights’ to persecute foxes. Dismissing genuine concerns for the welfare of wild birds (by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about) using the excuse that ‘they’re not endangered’ does fall into those same realms though…
What’s important here is not human rights (laying aside the rights of us folk who hate to see birds shot down by idiots for no reason beyond their own self-gratification and entertainment), but animal rights. Winter always sees huge numbers of birds like Woodcock fleeing really tough winter conditions. They have every right to survive, but are killed by people who have little or no clue what they’re gunning down. And for every ‘hunter’ that takes a few Woodcock while proudly proclaiming that killing ‘one or two’ has no practical impact, they seem to ‘conveniently’ forget all the other hunters that are doing exactly the same thing. How many nibbles from the cake can you take before there’s naff all left on the plate? Or, how many Woodock can you take before it’s Red Listed? This is not just about the individual bird’s right to life, but an entire species battling to survive in a world made even more dangerous and inhospitable by shooters.
Another thing that struck us about this Twitter thread is how it also validates what we’ve been saying about the use of the word ‘gamebirds’ (see – Language Matters | Birders and Gamebirds). We have said a number of times that the term ‘gamebird’ has been handed down to us by shooters. It is about property and ownership, not nature or science. Woodcock and snipes are not in sensu stricto ‘gamebirds’ but they are often lumped into the tawdry grab bag of ‘birds we can kill’ by shooters, and this has lead a lazy complacent attitude to identification.
Why bother to learn the differences between Woodcock and snipes (or any other similar-looking species) if you’ve heard or read somewhere that they’re ‘gamebirds’ and that means it’s okay to kill them? Why make the effort to do what us birders do – learn everything we can about how incredibly well-adapted these birds are to their environments, how their bill tips are sensitive to movement in the soil, how they have complex courtship displays – if your sole interest is putting holes into them?
So, yes, of course they are different species, but more than that they are remarkable, living, sentient beings that deserve far more than to be smashed out of the air for a laugh – or, as in the case of Countryside Alliance chief-exec Tim Bonner, to be disrespectfully displayed on the bonnet of a car while you brag about how proud you are for taking their lives…
…And shooters wonder why there is vanishingly little common ground between people like us and people like them.