Habitat for a Wild-Bird Shoot

Our technical advisor, Arthur Barraclough, explained to the NGO’s Keeping the Balance on how to lay the foundations for a successful wild-bird shoot. A favourable habitat is always the basis of successful wild-bird shoots. Vermin control is essential too, but here I will focus on the ‘must-haves’ from a crop and habitat perspective. The main objective is to create a continuous cycle of habitat throughout the year, providing everything game birds need at the appropriate times. There are three key considerations: nesting cover, brood-rearing cover and winter cover.

Nesting Cover

Beetle banks have been a great addition to many farms. These raised, tussocky grass areas divide larger arable fields and provide ideal nesting habitat. Cocksfoot, fescue and timothy are the main grass species to establish. Building a nice high bank – by ploughing or using a digger – will ensure the ground stays dry, even during wet spells which is vital. Beetle banks also provide a safe haven for insects away from the surrounding arable crop.

Fortunately, field margins are now the norm across much farmland, providing sanctuary for wildlife. A grass margin (ideally with the addition of some flowering species) alongside a well-managed hedge offers perfect nesting habitat. Clearly, topping or driving on field margins during the spring and summer should be avoided – and is prohibited anyway for those in stewardship schemes.

Generally, partridge favour open areas, with beetle banks and field margins forming the base habitat for grey partridge re-introduction projects across the UK. Pheasants are more at home in woodland. GWCT research shows that upwards of 43% of pheasant nests are made in woodland so if increasing stocks of wild pheasants is the objective, improving woodland habitats needs to be a priority. The woodland edge is the key area of focus. A graded slope achieved from mature trees, down to lower shrubs along the woodland edge will deliver cover for a range of farmland wildlife, not just game.

Coppicing is beneficial too: the majority of shoots undertake coppicing in the late winter/early spring to improve ground cover on the woodland floor, which in turn creates more nesting cover. Many customers seek options for planting cover crops in woodland. Canary grass is a candidate for this because it is fairly shade tolerant, but often the best strategy for increasing flora on the ground is to open up the canopy to allow entry of more light.

Wild-Bird Mix

Brood-rearing Cover

Increasing the insect population is fundamental in producing successful wild broods. There are three main routes to take: 

  • Plant a brood-rearing mixture

This is a fairly quick-fix. Drilling in the late summer/autumn can work well because it means the crop is in full working order ready for the following spring. Phacelia, Crimson Clover, Vetch, Chicory, Birds-Foot Trefoil and Fodder Radish are just some of the potential ingredients to include. Nectar Flower mix (AB1 Countryside Stewardship code) is a good option too that encourages pollinators and includes a whole host of flowering legumes. This is best planted into a warm seedbed in late May or June. Crops that flower low to the ground are perfect. Phacelia is a reliable choice, and crimson clover is good as it flowers early in the year. The key is to create a diverse mix, but keep it at a fairly low seed rate (hen and chicks should be able to easily access the whole mix area, not just the edges). Planting long, thin strips is preferable to big blocks – ideally a drill-width or two extending along the full length of the beetle bank or field margin.

  • Wildflower margins

Protect existing wildflower habitats and enhance existing grass margins by either adding or replacing them with wildflower mixes. Farms entered into Countryside Stewardship can take advantage of the AB8 option, which focuses on ‘Wildflower Margins and Plots’. Wildflowers attract a huge number of insects in the spring (having low growing grasses like Sheep’s Fescue will ensure that the wildflowers won’t be swamped by more vigorous grass species). The advantage of a wildflower margin over a brood-rearing mix is that the wildflowers are a more permanent feature. A good insect population can take years to build-up, but the rewards can be tremendous, a recent trip to a Grey Partridge project in Hampshire showed permanent wildflower areas – mainly field corners and margins – booming with insect life.

  • Unharvested cereal margins

Potentially the simplest option: it involves leaving a strip of arable crop unharvested around the edge of a field. To achieve best results after drilling the crop, the area should not be sprayed with insecticide or herbicides and should not be fertilised. This will encourage natural weeds and wildflowers to emerge, will allow insects to flourish and the reduction in fertiliser will stop the cereal crop from dominating. Drilling the unharvested area on wider row coulters or at a lower seed rate will increase the light reaching the soil and can encourage further germination of favourable plants, and also make the crop more accessible to wildlife, including ground nesting birds and their chicks.

Winter Cover

Wild-Bird Mixture Having a strong, winter-hardy habitat mosaic is vital during the winter. Getting this right will encourage game to hold on the ground throughout the winter, increasing game populations ready for spring nesting.

As the name suggests wild-bird mixtures are a must for wild-bird shoots. For those in stewardship schemes, the AB9 option addresses the ‘wild-bird mix’ side of things. Using a mix that contains winter-hardy species as well as seed producing plants is important, with kale and grain sorghum good options because they last well into the winter. The dense canopy produced by kale and other brassicas (there are many kale hybrids available which are brilliant additions to game cover and stewardship mixes) offer ideal protection against avian predators. Larger blocks of fodder beet or stubble turnips can also play a part by providing useful driving cover on shoot days: and can be a useful sweetener for the farmer by providing fodder for livestock!

Looking around a shoot in mid-winter can reveal a lot about the state of the ground. The woodland floor should still be green and dense, hedges still offering safe passage between habitats, and cover crops providing good feed and cover.

In summary, shooting estates do a huge amount of practical conservation work, and this is particularly so with wild-bird shoots. Management strategies to encourage wild game stocks have a hugely positive knock-on effect on the whole ecosystem. Quinoa in wild-bird mixtures is a favourite with yellowhammers, many flowering species in nectar mixes provide a much-needed pollen source for bumble-bees and a well-managed coppiced woodland plays host to endangered species like dormice.