Gamecover Through The Ages

 Marc Bull, of Bright Seeds, looks at how and why game crops have evolved through the ages, from the impact of World War II to the introduction of stewardship schemes… 

It is estimated that roughly 25,000 hectares of gamecover crops are grown across Britain each year. Once established, these crops are left almost untouched to provide food and shelter to game birds, farmland birds and an array of other wildlife. They also provide nesting and brood rearing habitat throughout other times of the year.

But the rise of dedicated and specific gamecover crops is a relatively new concept and, since their introduction, they have taken several forms due to a number of reasons.


Changes Since WWII – Farming Practises

We know that the devastation of World War II caused a lot of changes – and this was no different for farming. With a financially challenged, hungry nation, the cost-effective production of food was understandably a number one priority.

To achieve this, the UK government implemented the 1947 Agricultural Act that, among other things, increased production and efficiency. Farmers were paid to drain previously unproductive land and remove features like hedgerows to make more room for machinery and food production.

Before this, the mixed farming practise across the country meant there were plenty of crops that doubled up as forage for livestock and cover for birds – brassicas such as kale and stubble turnips – a more modern example of this is Bright Seeds’ Utopia which can be used as game cover and a forage crop.

As well as forage crops – cereals, stubble and green manure crops would have also been used for gamecover purposes, albeit stubble that is quite different from what we know today. Not only is modern stubble a lot shorter due to the advances in machinery, but stubble 70 years ago was much greener because limited herbicides were not used – so longer, greener stubble made ideal cover for birds and other wildlife.

So, the need for deliberate gamecover crops wasn’t there, as the farming practise generated plenty of opportunities for rough shooting. Perhaps some specific gamecover crops were planted in areas that were awkward to farm, but generally, the farm crops were used – apart from in the odd circumstance of extreme luxury where estates carried out driven shooting.


An Evolving Landscape

Britain wasn’t transformed from a mixed farming model to more intensive practises overnight, so there would have been a period post-WWII in which farms were still able to use forage crops and cereal stubble to hold gamebirds. But, in the 80s, shooting became a more accessible pursuit – meaning larger areas of crops that could hold more birds were required.

As farming practises developed, so did the crops that were grown.

In the 1980s, David Bright – founder of Bright Seeds and a pioneer in developing the UK forage maize market – positioned Bright Seeds as a key player in the forage maize market. After this, he was in a good position to develop game maize markets.

As weather patterns have changed and become warmer, other exotic species in addition to maize were added to the game cover shop window. Species such as sorghum, millet and sunflowers, and harder wearing brassicas have all been introduced into the market.

This is alongside more native species like kale, artichokes and mustard.


Enter Stewardship Schemes

In 1991, the UK government introduced the first Agri-environment ‘countryside stewardship scheme’ (CSS), which made payments to farmers and land managers to enhance the landscape of the countryside, and to benefit wildlife. A key part was also to enrich the history, and the publics enjoyment of the countryside.

It wouldn’t be a particularly bold statement to say that CSS has had as big an impact on gamecover options as anything since the evolution in the UK’s farming practises that we looked at earlier. Mixes to support pollinators, farmland birds and other wildlife communities are now as common, if not more, than seeing maize on a shoot.

Wild bird mixtures – such as Pheasant & Finch – are a particularly popular option. Many of these make use of seed – for feed – generated by the aforementioned exotic species such as quinoa and millet. Various stewardship options also incorporate wildflowers, which benefit pollinators and attract insects as a food source for hatching chicks – they also give the countryside the desired look aesthetically.

With the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) having recently been introduced, and as part of this the much-discussed Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), it is likely that we will see even more of the countryside transform from focussing on food production, to focussing on environmental landscapes. Although the reduction in homegrown food is a concern for some, the food that is grown will carry a higher environmental credential – which could see farmers getting paid what they deserve.


Evolution not Revolution

Fundamentally, the requirements and needs of gamebirds and other wildlife hasn’t changed – food, water, shelter and nesting habitat. However, the way these requirements have been delivered has evolved, and it is likely that this will continue.

As with anything, there are pros and cons. Mixed, less intense farming practises were better for the environment, and provided natural habitat for wildlife. But the drives were dictated by the farmers and where the crops were positioned, whereas now, a keeper can put cover down where they see most appropriate. Modern farming has also seen Britain gain a reputation as world leaders in animal welfare and food standards.

It is inevitable that the further introduction of environmental schemes will change and transform gamecover and wildlife habitat. One could be encouraged that the new systems and latest schemes provide a balance between the previous system of farming and the more intense practises that we have seen since the after WWII.

And, with a high percentage of the public still completely misunderstanding what shooting is all about, perhaps a move to even more environmental and stewardship mixtures isn’t a bad idea?