Bird Flu: Where Should The Focus Be?

As we mentioned in our previous blog, the industry is seeing unprecedented price increases for the 22/23 season, leaving some shoots unsure on how to precede. Below our technical advisor, Marc Bull, gives his thoughts on where the focus should be, and how to deal with the uncertainty…

For those of us who work in the industry, it is about more than rearing and looking after our own birds. As a whole, the shooting industry contributes £2 billion per year to the UK economy and is involved in the management of two-thirds of the UK’s rural land area. This management includes, but is not limited to, looking after soil, capturing carbon, pest control and habitat creation/management for wild and farmland birds, as well as supplementary feeding both farmland and woodland songbirds.

Despite not being the sole purpose of what we do, it is the shooting season that provides a substantial percentage of the funding used to complete all of this important work. And this season, many are worried about how their shoot might look, and how many birds it might have!

As most will be aware by now, a severe outbreak of bird flu in Pays de la Loire, France (the region that supplies over half of the partridge poults we use) has many worried whether they will have any birds to rear at all. This, coupled with rising costs, rightly has people concerned. However, what we are experiencing now is not the norm, and we can reasonably expect things to improve as we move away from the current troubles. War, Brexit and Covid may have provided the perfect storm – but there is still plenty for us to do, and even more for us to think about.


Residual Birds

Due to COVID severely impacting the 20/21 season, and its impact still lingering into the 21/22 season, there are more birds left over on the ground than most of us are used to.

These birds need to be provided with water, cover and food. Feeding them through until the start of the 22/23 season increases the chances of retaining birds and, with the price of each shot bird expected to be substantially higher, this is not to be scoffed at.

Understandably, those without birds this year aren’t going to spend big planting maize or sorghum for leftover and wild birds, but remember, if you are in a stewardship scheme then there is a legal obligation to carry this work out – so these plots can be used for cover and, via countryside stewardship, generating lost income.

Its worth also noting that water needs to be readily available. This is particularly pertinent if there isn’t a natural water course on the land. Even if there is, its good practise to make water available where you want your birds.


Stale Seedbed

Readers may think we repeat this too often, but as game and conservation crop specialists, what do you expect? You can read more on seed-bed systems and preparation in our previous blog.

Regardless of other factors, achieving a stale seed bed is vital – particularly when thinking forward to crops for the next couple of seasons.

If nothing is planted, and the decision is made to keep a plot fallow for 12 months, then the soil is likely to go sour. It is thought that a teaspoon of soil has over a million living organisms present and, just like any living thing, it needs to be fed. It is the relationship within the soil – the soil biology – that decides how well our plants establish and grow. Organisms withing the soil help to mineralise nitrogen, which is essential for future growth.

Green Manure

For those who are still unsure on bird numbers and want to give themselves and their soil some insurance, then a green manuring crop that will help hold nutrients is a good choice this year.

Not only will a crop like this help fix soil and hold onto the goodness, it will also provide cover and habitat for released birds, residual birds and wild birds.

As mentioned, soil ideally likes a mixture of crops that give back various elements. The below mixture is something that I’ve been recommending to customers this year. It is a simple mixture that is kind on the keepers’ pocket, will provide cover and food for wild birds and pollinators.

Lightning Mustard – An annual brassica that gets away quickly and is therefore good at escaping vermin. It reacts well to NPK and can tolerate dry spells fairly well. It is reasonably priced and goes well whether drilled or broadcast.

Buckwheat– Firstly, pheasants and partridge both love buckwheat seed. Buckwheat is also proven to unlock Phosphates (P) within the soil that are otherwise unavailable to the crop. Anecdotally, buckwheat also helps brassicas get away from flea beetle when planted with brassicas.

Phacelia – Ongoing work suggests that Phacelia does for Potassium (K) what Buckwheat does for Phosphates, meaning it helps unlock Potassium in the soil.

Something that Phacelia is particularly useful for is reacting with mycorrhizal fungi. This fungi essentially extends the root area of the plants by attaching to the roots – allowing the plant to find nutrients and moisture that it may otherwise struggle to reach.

Phacelia is also a favourite of pollinators, providing plenty of food for them.

Legume– Crimson Clover or Vetch, for example, fix atmospheric Nitrogen (N), making it available for other crops to utilise. Legumes are also good at interacting with friendly bacteria in the soil (think what Yakult does for humans).

Another benefit of the example mixture above – and one of the key reasons I have been making use of it – is that it doesn’t want to go in the ground too early. The fact that these species can all go in a little later means any broad-leaved weeds can be taken care of beforehand. It also allows more time to achieve a stale seed-bed and, particularly useful this year, allows keepers more time to see what is going on with the bird situation.

As you can see, something like the above provides an abundance on benefits. Providing cover and food for birds and pollinators alike, whilst also helping maintain and improve soil health & structure – something more important than ever when looking at the price of fertiliser.

If left bare, the plot will be taken over by weeds – and good luck to those thinking that the weeds will only hang around for a year. Red Shank, for example, has a seed life of 60 years, a sheds up to 2,000 seeds per plant. The majority of these seeds are then trodden in before any birds have had the time to eat them. I’ve had customers in the past talk about using weeds as cover, which they will do to a degree, but they are called weeds for a reason, and they will be detrimental to the plot for years to come.


It won’t come as a surprise for most people that the price of fertiliser has skyrocketed. Due to this, very few customers I’ve met this year are planning on using fertiliser on game and stewardship crops – with most choosing alternatives instead.

Basically, get hold of whatever is available. Whether its slurry, manure of chicken litter – it will all help. And again, planting a green manure crop will stop nutrition leaching away, retaining it in the soil for next years’ crop to utilise.

On my AB9 plots, I’ve worked with a neighbouring dairy farmer and put on farmyard manure and ploughed it in. Unless things change drastically, that’s all the crop will get until its is big enough to take some foliar feed, such as crop lift.

Foliar Feed Regime

For those who are confident of bird numbers and are set to continue with hungry maize, sorghum or kale plots, get as much organic fertiliser on the seed-bed as possible. Then, if non-organic fertiliser remains at the same costly heights, a good foliar feeding regime should be considered.

For those who aren’t familiar with foliar feeding, it is essentially feeding the leaves – the foliage. Starting off with Algifol, as early as possible. I’d recommend starting off with half a litre per Ha (this is half the standard rate) when its first emerging, and then switching to a full litre per Ha once the crop has pushed on.

Following this, we can either go in with Maize Boost (another foliar feed), or carry out some weed control – depending on how the crop is looking. It is worth remembering that in a year like this – when fertiliser isn’t being used as normal – weed control is more important than ever, as weeds will be stealing nutrition and moisture from the crop!

Often, maize can look like it has stalled. Don’t worry, this is just while it is developing root structure. Once its looking ready to kick on – but before 7 leaf – go on with crop lift (the final foliar feed). It is important to do this at last light, not in the middle of the day or in the sun, otherwise the N content will scorch the leaves in the heat.

The same system can be applied to a brassica-based crop with a big green index like Kale or Utopia. Foliar feed with Algifol to begin with and then Maize Boost. The name can be misleading, but Maize Boost works well as a foliar feed on lots of crops – not just maize. When looking at brassica-based crop, a timely application of crop lift can have a very positive effect.

Think Ahead

Even if you’re a shoot that decides to cut your losses and not buy any birds in for this season, think ahead to next season – when, we hope, stock levels will return to normal. As well as looking after CS schemes and wild birds, this year can be viewed as an opportunity with perennials.

As we know, Perennial crops such as Reed Canary and Chicory don’t do anything in their first year. So, if this year is going to be smaller or inactive, get some perennials in the ground in late-spring or summer, and reap the rewards of a fully established second year perennial crop when you’re back next year.


For more information on anything you’ve read in this blog – please don’t hesitate to call the office or contact us