As a breeding bird the snipe is now uncommon in southern England, but it is much more common in the north and west of the UK.
In the New Forest snipe are fairly widespread but still rare, with perhaps 100 pairs in total – they are decreasing dramatically in southern England so the New Forest population is an important stronghold.
Snipe require wet areas with plenty of rushes interspersed with short grass. To breed successfully they need the ground to remain wet over the spring and summer so that they can probe in soft soil and find food close to their nest. The New Forest bogs and mires provide such a habitat and are good for snipe. The grazing ponies and cattle help to keep the wetland areas roughed up and this provides plenty of small wet hollows and hoof prints in which snipe can find their food.
Snipe are probably less vulnerable to disturbance than other breeding waders because they sit tight, relying on their camouflaged plumage rather than flying away from would be predators. Also people and dogs tend not to walk through their wetland habitat.
Snipe have a wonderful display flight called drumming. They circle their territory in spring, usually early and late in the day and repeatedly fly up and then dive down. As they descend the air passes between their tail feathers and creates a strange vibrating sound. They will also make rhythmical ‘chippa-chippa’ calls from within their marshy territories, perhaps even perched on a fence post in full view.
Any of the wetland areas in the New Forest area may hold breeding snipe. One fairly good area is along the old railway line near Holmsley. Try early mornings in April or May.
Alternatively, you can see them in winter along the coast or along river valleys. They usually feed around the edges of marshy lagoons, and roost tucked away amongst grassy tussocks – scan the margins of pools between Keyhaven and Lymington to find them.
The best way to help snipe is to let them breed in peace; please keep your dog out of wetland areas and bogs, especially in spring and summer.
Photo: Mike Read