Bridging the hungry gap

With an increasing number of forecasters predicting a particularly cold winter, Marc Bull, Kings’ Southern technical advisor, considers how supplementary feeding of small farmland birds can not only protect and enhance the environmental value of farmland, but bring financial benefits too.

As technology advances our farm machinery is getting bigger and field sizes are increasing, leading to habitat loss. More efficient farming techniques are leaving little in the way of spilt grain and weedy stubbles after harvest. Grain stores are becoming more clinical in their operation, further restricting access to food supplies for small farmland birds.

Many growers are now exploring ways to improve the situation, but while the wild bird seed option in stewardship schemes has helped to tackle these changes over the last two decades, sadly it is not enough to buck the trend of declining iconic species such as the grey partridge, tree sparrow and turtle dove. Although some species struggle in the spring due to lack of brood rearing habitats, most of Natural England’s 10 most wanted species suffer massive winter month mortalities through starvation.

One option available to growers is supplementary feeding. This option, brought in to stewardship last winter has shown positive early results, and several HLS agreements have already expanded the original January to March feeding period to December to May.

There is one aspect that makes this a particularly appealing choice for farmers; it is one of the more financially rewarding options. With an HLS payment of £822 per tonne and full mix prices starting from around £350 per tonne it makes perfect sense to sign up to the option in my opinion, especially given this year’s grain prices.

Anyone in ELS or HLS can bolt on the supplementary feeding option, all you have to do is discuss it with you NE advisor. But do be aware that it isn’t as simple as feeding straight wheat. Farmers have two options available; the first is to purchase 400kg of a pre-mix containing red and white millet, linseed, oats, mustard, canary seed, OSR, sunflower hearts and black sunflowers. This can then be mixed with 600kg of farm saved wheat. Alternatively a tonne of “full mix” can be supplied to remove the mixing process and allow the farm to sell its wheat.

I must highlight one area that requires some thought and a little caution. At Kings we work hard to reduce any possible risk of bringing weed seeds on farm in our wild bird seed mixtures and we face daily battles in the spring and summer months to combat already existing populations of barnyard grass and fox tail millet. I would always recommend using seed grade millet, as opposed to feed grade in a supplementary feeding mix. This is because the seed grade undergoes scrupulous screening in order to minimise the risk of bringing weed seeds on farm.

The mixture can then be fed on the floor in wild bird seed plots, grass margins and hard standing tracks next to hedgerows. You can also hopper feed the mixture, but this must be done in combination with feeding on the floor.

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