In our latest blog, Marc Bull – one of our game cover and stewardship advisors – looks at why autumn is the best time to reflect on the year’s cover crops to learn lessons for the season ahead. He also looks at the increasing importance of supplementary feeding in the coming months, known as ‘The Hungry Gap’.
As I write this, harvest is underway, and most keepers have birds in pens. Ongoing work for ‘keepers involve the establishment and tending of game cover crops and stewardship plots, whilst keeping notes on said plots to help make improvements moving forwards.
Each year brings its own challenges and 2020/21 is no different. We saw a late cold and dry snap, quickly followed by a month of rain and cold temperatures. Some growers opted to sow early (April), anticipating a repeat of the prolonged heat and drought experienced in the previous three springs.
Unfortunately, this was the wrong way to go, and re-drilling has been common – it is worth remembering you have until mid/late summer to establish game and wild bird seed crops. Late drilled crops caught up with the early drilled due to the latter losing much of its vigour to late germination and poor growing conditions. I’ve seen Foxxi maize planted the first week in June that overtook plots drilled in April.
Weed control was again a contentious issue this year: unfortunately, some of the problems stemmed from a failure to adhere to the basic rules such as inappropriate crop choice.
Selection of a crop – whether straight or a mixture – should be based on the historic weed burden, rather than what looks good in a catalogue or what is trending on social media. Yes, certain species are more attractive to birds and will help hold them etc., but what is the point if the crop can’t get away from weeds?
The ability to source and apply the appropriate chemicals to control weeds in the selected crop is vital. I know of one grower who had to re-drill his entire 10ha of AB9 because the keeper did not apply the pre-ems on time!
Contrary to the myth, weeds neither feed the birds nor provide mid/late season cover. Weeds left to seed will produce a mass of viable seed (barnyard grass for example can produce up to 40,000) that can lay dormant in the soil for years, if not decades, before germinating in profusion with calamitous consequences.
As ever, vermin pressure has also been immense this season.
Even in the “dry times”, slugs have done some serious damage right under our noses. Usually, they predate the seed beneath the surface or simply emerge from the grass margins on a damp evening to graze crops. Additionally, the mass of corvids, pigeons and residual game birds – coupled with a loss in seed dressing – has all too often created a perfect storm for crop losses. And the appearance of the dreaded flea beetle just augments the gamekeepers’ wows, particularly when extreme temperatures hinder brassicas growing away from grazing pressure in the spring.
The change from autumn to winter often takes people by surprise and keepers will be mindful of switching grower pellets for wheat in the pens, followed by prepping feed rides and getting feeders out. Every year people debate about the best way to make the switch for holding birds –
Four factors, above others, influence the success of holding birds:
Habitat: a mosaic of habitats is required to help hold and entertain birds; utilising stewardship options such as AB1 (nectar flower) and AB8 (grass and flowers) can help reduce summer/autumn wandering ten-fold compared to “just maize” or an arable prairie.
Food: an essential management tool for training the birds to be at the right place at the right time.
Water: in the summer and autumn birds can be more drawn to water availability than to food.
Predator control: would you want to live where you constantly feared for your life?
I highly rate cut maize mixed in with wheat; and opt – for the sake of an extra £20 per tonne – for aniseed favour, which does help.
For partridge-based shoots (or hand feeding pheasants), I recommend also using holding mixtures such as our Easykeep.
This year I am going to play around with introducing the maize with the wheat in manolas when switching from pellets. This is to try to get the birds used to/hooked on the maize early, to benefit from its holding properties as soon as possible.
Plugging The Hungry Gap
Keepers’ role in helping to reduce winter mortalities of farmland songbirds is well known, but the conservation world is still struggling to plug the hungry gap (1st Dec- 30th April). This is the reason “supplementary feeding” was originally brought in to the old HLS and today it is a prominent feature in the Countryside Stewardship mid-tier and higher-tier agreements – code AB12 (it will certainly be included in the upcoming ELMS scheme due to be phased in circa 2024)
The current AB12 option is only available to those growing a minimum of 1ha AB9 in their agreement. Under the arrangement, the grower gets paid £632 per tonne feed they make available between Dec-April. Tonnage is limited to 1 tonne per 2ha of AB9 in the agreement and it has to be ratio of 70% cereals with 30% specialist small seeds (we provide both a pre-mix that mixes with home grown wheat or a full mix where the wheat is already included).
‘Sweepings’ do not qualify; records must be kept and only 10% of the feed can be fed through hoppers. This option seems a ‘no brainier’ to any farm that shoots IMO as the keeper/farmer is already out there putting food out: one might as well get paid to do it! The option also makes prolonging the feed period post-shooting financially viable.