The widespread decline of some of our most prominent farmland birds such as grey partridge, yellowhammer, tree sparrow and linnet is well known.
A leading contributor to their plight is the so called 'hungry gap'; a period from December to April where there is a shortage of food in the wider countryside for farmland birds due to the natural depletion of available seed. It is during this time that birds are at a greater risk of starvation, with many unable to make it through to the breeding season.
Help in the fight for food
Actively spreading seed into the farmed landscape during the 'hungry gap' is now regarded as one of the key options in agri-environment schemes. It is a major component of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England (option AB12 available in both Mid Tier and Higher Tier), and also the 'simplified' Mid-Tier schemes.
Distributing seed across over wintered stubbles, on farm tracks and alongside/in wild bird seed plots can provide farmland birds with essential food resources, giving them a better chance of surviving the winter and entering the breeding season in healthy condition.
Payments for supplementary feeding
While the distribution of seed also helps support game birds on farms, the primary objective under stewardship schemes is to support our wild farmland bird populations. It is important that this is remembered. If done correctly, and scheme rules are adhered to, the option can provide a worthwhile return in payments to the farmer, while avoiding the risk of financial penalties during any Rural Payment Association (RPA) inspections.
Payment rates are very competitive, from £632 per tonne in the latest schemes. In order to qualify for the supplementary feeding option, you should also be growing areas of wild bird seed mix (AB9). For every two hectares of wild bird seed in the agreement, you can spread one tonne of supplementary bird seed each year. This can be split equally between two feeding stations (500g/per year/per station).
The more wild bird seed mix you have, the greater the amount of supplementary winter feed that can be applied for. For example, ten hectares of wild bird seed mix would qualify for five tonnes of supplementary winter feeding.
The composition of the seed mix
This can vary depending on the type of agreement entered into and the species of farmland bird targeted – if you intend to receive payment for the supplementary feeding option you should check your scheme requirements.
The overall aim is to provide a mix of mainly cereal (usually making up 65-75%) and oilseed rape (5%). You should also include small seeds such as millet, quinoa and sunflower seeds, which are great for sparrows, finches and buntings.
The best methods for feeding
The most effective way to provide seed for most species and for flocks of farmland birds is to spread it on hard-standing, infrequently used trackways. These should be located next to hedgerows or other cover so that birds feel safe and can avoid potential predators.
The use of hoppers in the schemes is only permitted on a small-scale – only 10% of seed fed in Mid Tier and Higher Tier agreements can be done this way.
At Kings, we are able to supply Perdix feeder buckets and have seen some great success with these. The buckets can be suspended out of reach of game birds and are particularly effective in areas where tree sparrow colonies have been identified.
Under most scheme rules, seed should be spread at least once a week from 1st December until the end of April. Distribution should occur at two separate locations, preferably at different ends of the farm. Feeding alongside sown wild bird seed mixtures can also be advantageous, as the birds will already be used to feeding in those areas.
It is a good idea to move feeding locations regularly throughout the winter to discourage vermin and disease build up associated with regular seed distribution. Areas frequented by rats, such as near farm buildings or watercourses, can see the problem exacerbated by the scattering of seed, so should be avoided.
The use of tailings is not usually permitted, as they can increase the weed burden on the farm and they tend to offer a lower nutritional value for birds.
Record keeping ensures scheme compliance
If you are getting paid for supplementary feeding, you will need to keep the following records and supply them on request:
- Details of the mixture used (weight of components and cost)
- Dates of feeding
- Method of feeding (hopper or spreading)
- Amount of feed
- Location of the feeding areas.
This information is extremely important and ensures scheme compliance to safeguard payments.
To make it easy to log the above records, particularly while out and about on farm, Kings have created a supplementary feeding diary. All of the necessary information can be collated in one convenient place, making it a valuable tool for inspections. Plus, there's a handy bird ID chart included so you can keep track of the key species on your farm.
Remember: keep these supplementary feeding diaries in a safe place and pass them on to the RPA inspector should you be inspected. Poor record keeping is one of the most common inspection failures, which can potentially cause reductions in your Basic Payment and agri-environment grants.
Big Farmland Bird Count
As well as making record keeping simple, the supplementary feeding diary also includes information about the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust's (GWCT) Big Farmland Bird Count which is taking place between the 8th and 17th February 2019.
This important initiative offers a simple means of recording the effect of any conservation schemes currently being initiated by farmers and gamekeepers on their land. This may be supplementary feeding or growing wild bird seed crops and game cover crops and is a brilliant chance to really see the fruits of your labour by recording the different bird species on your farm.
Speaking of the count, GWCT's Jim Egan said; "Farmers, gamekeepers and landowners are responsible for managing the largest songbird habitat in this country on their land but frequently their efforts to reverse bird declines are largely unrecorded. We believe our Big Farmland Bird Count will help remedy this. More people than ever took part in last year's count. The more people who count the better idea we have as to how our farmland birds are faring, so I urge people to get out and count!"
For more information on how to get involved please visit www.bfbc.org.uk
Already have a stewardship scheme in place?
If you already have an Environmental Stewardship Scheme and are providing food through wild bird seed mixes, nectar mixes and wildflower margins, it may be possible to get the Supplementary Winter Feeding option added to your agreement.