Gallinago gallinago (Linnaeus, 1758)
Family: Charadriiformes > Scolopacidae
A long-billed wader; describing its plumage as ‘basically brown’ does severe injustice to the exquisite patterning that provides its camouflage.
A “lover of swamps and quagmire overgrown” (to quote John Clare’s poem on the species), the first many know of a Snipe's presence is when it explodes from damp ground surprisingly near one’s feet. Their collective term ‘wisp’ perfectly describes the unpredictable, jinking, flight of a small flock taking off.
Snipe breed throughout Britain, although in smaller numbers in the south and east following the drainage of much of our lowland wet grassland. Numbers are, however, much greater in the winter when we receive birds from as far east as Russia.
Select a topic for more facts and statistics about the Snipe
Snipe identification is often straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Snipe.
A stocky brown bird rockets up from just in front of your feet, but is it a Common Snipe, or its rarer relative Jack Snipe? Let us help you tell the two apart.
Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Snipe, provided by xeno-canto contributors.
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Status and Trends
Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.
This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.
Snipe were monitored by the CBC mainly in lowland England, where numbers have fallen rapidly since the 1970s as farmland has been drained (Gibbons et al. 1993, Siriwardena et al. 2000a). The CBC index fell from the early 1970s until 1984, when the number of occupied plots became too small for further monitoring (Marchant et al. 1990), and the graph is not included here. Surveys in England and Wales revealed a decrease of 62% in breeding birds in wet meadows between 1982 and 2002, with the remaining birds becoming highly aggregated into a tiny number of suitable sites. The trend in the upland and moorland strongholds of the species is not fully known, but the 1988-91 atlas documented range loss widely in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as lowland England, and atlas work during 2008-11 confirmed that range loss or population decrease has been evident almost everywhere (Balmer et al. 2013). In Northern Ireland, the breeding population had shrunk to just 1,123 (527-1,782) pairs by 2013, representing a decrease of around 78% since 1987, with the distribution becoming increasingly fragmented (Colhoun et al. 2015). The BBS showed initial increases from 1995, especially in Scotland, but a sharp downturn from around 2002 to 2012, since when numbers have been stable or increasing. There has been a decline across Europe since 1980 (PECBMS: PECBMS 2020a>).
|UK breeding population||No population change in UK (1995–2020)|
|UK winter population||-37% decrease (1995/96 to 2020/21)|
Snipes are the most widespread wintering waders in Britain & Ireland, occuring in 88% of 10-km squares, spanning a wide range of lowland and upland habitats, except for the highest parts of Scotland. Densities are highest in southwest Ireland, the Northern Isles and in the coastal margins of Britain & Ireland. As a breeder, highest densities are focused in Scotland, northwest England, Wales and in the midlands and west of Ireland.
Occupied 10-km squares in UK
|No. occupied in breeding season||1640|
|% occupied in breeding season||54|
|No. occupied in winter||2647|
|% occupied in winter||88|
European Distribution Map
Breeding Season Habitats
|Most frequent in||Lakes|
|Also common in||Bog, Marsh|
Relative frequency by habitat
Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK
|% change in range in breeding season (1968–72 to 2008–11)||-31.5%|
|% change in range in winter (1981–84 to 2007–11)||+15.8%|
Snipes are recorded throughout the year though particularly evident during autumn and winter.
Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.
An overview of year-round movements for the whole of Europe can be seen on the EuroBirdPortal viewer.
Lifecycle and body size information about Snipe, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.
|First Clutches Laid||30 Apr (31 Mar–24 Jun)|
|Number of Broods||1|
|Egg Size||40×28 mm Weight = 16.5 g (of which 5% is shell)|
|Clutch Size||4 eggs | 3.9 ± 0.35 (2–5) N=465|
View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report
|Maximum Age from Ringing||16 years 0 months 19 days (set in 1993)|
|Typical Lifespan||3 years with breeding typically at 2 year|
|Juvenile Survival||0.48 (in first year)|
|Wing Length||Adults||136.1±3.9 | Range 129–142mm, N=754|
|Juveniles||136.1±4.1 | Range 130-142mm, N=661|
|Body Weight||Adults||108±12.17 | Range 91.0–129g, N=643|
|Juveniles||106±11.1172 | Range 89.0–124g, N=598|
Feather measurements and photos on featherbase
|Ring size||C or C2 (pulli D or D2)|
|Field Codes||2-letter: SN | 5-letter code: SNIPE | Euring: 5190|
For information in another language (where available) click on a linked name
Interpretation and scientific publications about Snipe from BTO scientists.
Causes of change
The reasons for the decline are unknown.
Further information on causes of change
During the decline in wet meadows in England and Wales between 1982 and 2002, birds were more likely to persist where soils remained soft and wet (Wilson et al. 2005); however the fact that Snipe have continued to decline, despite soil conditions being improved for them at many lowland wetland reserves, suggests that other key aspects of habitat quality, such as prey abundance, are more likely to be driving the decline (Smart et al. 2008). Buchanan et al. ( 2017) found that a varied vegetation composition was important and that abundance increased with higher vegetation height. In Scotland at least, agri-environment schemes can benefit this species (O'Brien & Wilson 2011).
Increases in Snipe numbers at Langholm Moor between 2008 and 2017 were attributed to predator control (Ludwig et al. 2019). However, this study was at a single site only and further research is needed to investigate whether predation may have contributed to the wider decline of this species. In contrast, nest record scheme data, although based on a low sample size, show that daily failure rates at the egg stage appear to have more than halved since 1967 suggesting predation is not a cause of decline, at least at the nest.
Information about conservation actions
This species is now restricted mainly to key sites such as nature reserves where conservation management for waders is undertaken; however, numbers are still declining even where suitable management occurs (Smart et al. 2008) and therefore further research may be required to confirm the reasons for the decline before lasting solutions can be identified.
In the meantime, managing fields to provide wet and soft soil conditions is likely to enable Snipe to continue to persist at existing sites. This can be achieved through decreased grazing pressure and increasing surface flooding, e.g. by raising water levels (Smart et al. 2008). Opening up rush patches by cutting and grazing, digging scrapes and heightening water levels increased breeding snipe numbers at a site in Cumbria (Holton & Allcorn 2006) although it is unclear which of the actions were most important. Snipe breeding in upland Britain depend on unimproved marginal grassland and wet habitats (Hoodless et al. 2010), and hence it is important that such areas are retained or made available as part of the habitat mosaic.
A long-term conservation strategy will need to provide suitable wet habitat across the wider countryside to enable Snipe to recolonise away from key sites. However, a study in Northern Ireland suggested that intensive pastoral farming and ongoing activities such as drainage and peat extraction was likely to further reduce the suitability of open habitats (Henderson et al. 2002). Conservation policies may therefore be required here and elsewhere in the UK to encourage and enable the protection and provision of Snipe habitat.
Continuing influences of introduced hedgehogs Erinaceus europaeus as a predator of wader (Charadrii) eggs four decades after their release on the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Non-native predators can cause major declines or even localised extinctions in prey populations across the globe, especially on islands.
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