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Winter bird food plots – considerations for spring 2024

The impacts of the recent difficult weather conditions have had some devastating effects on many farms across the country. It's no surprise the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and other public funding opportunities, such as Countryside Stewardship (CS), are at the forefront of many people's minds.

Whilst incorporating an SFI action or a CS option into your rotation can be a great remedy in the face of a challenge, there are a few important things to consider. In this blog, I'll be focusing specifically on the AHL2: Winter bird food on arable and horticultural land action in the SFI and the AB9: Winter bird food option in CS. I'll be covering some tips and recommendations for seedbed preparation, establishment, agronomy plans and methods for destruction on these options.

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Specialist and environmental crop mixes: The importance of quality seed

When it comes to specialist mixes and crops designed to deliver specific benefits to the environment and wider farm or estate, making sure you're using high quality seed is paramount. If not, you could be looking at some unwelcome issues, increased time and effort spent managing your crops, poor performance overall and even putting the wider rotation or environment at risk.

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Providing farmland birds a lifeline this winter

As we enter early January and temperatures begin to fall, foraging time for farmland birds is at its lowest and food sources start to run out. This period is often referred to as the 'hungry gap' and usually lasts from December through to April - the hardest time for many of our beloved wild bird species to survive.

As we enter this peak period for food requirements, your carefully managed wild bird seed plots will start looking thinner and a lot of the seed will have fallen to the ground and been eaten. The good news is that growers and land managers are increasingly taking up the option of supplementary feeding, either as part of an existing Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme, Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme, or simply because it's a great thing to do.

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Take the chance to boost your forage stocks this autumn

With the relentlessly wet harvest at an end for most - or very nearly at an end - thoughts have already turned towards new season crop establishment.

This time last year, following the very dry summer, many grappled with poor conditions for sowing grass and forage and as a result quite a lot of seed remained in the shed. Our colleague, Dave Harris, did a great blog earlier this year highlighting the value in reseeding grassland and investing into new leys.

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Bare land – do you know what to do with yours?

There's no doubt that the start of the 2023 growing season was challenging across the country, with the wettest March in 40 years being followed by the wettest start to April in the last five. As we headed into May, ambient temperatures were still slow to rise, so I think many would agree that conditions were less than ideal this spring.

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The benefits of cover crops – much more than just soil health

Cover cropping has become a common practice within arable rotations and as spoken about in previous blogs, this is due to the many benefits they can bring to soils. Given the current volatile fertiliser market, however, today there is much more interest in their ability to capture nutrients, particularly nitrogen. We mustn't forget the range of habitat they also provide for various insects and wildlife.

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The benefits of cover crop destruction within ELMs

February - the month for late snowfall, frosts and in some areas welcome rainfall. Wherever you are in the UK, there will be different challenges as the days lengthen. Some of those challenges are 'the office jobs' you thought you had plenty of time for but now you have more daylight, there is the temptation to shelve those tasks and get on the field. Countryside Stewardship (CS) and Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) application windows also open around this time, adding even greater temptation to park those jobs.

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Celebrate 10 years of the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count and get involved

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust's (GWCT) Big Farmland Bird Count (BFBC). As the founder of this initiative, I am overwhelmingly pleased to see it is still going strong and that so many of you are continuing to take part.

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Supporting farmland birds this winter with supplementary feeding

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Supplementary feeding provides a vital lifeline for farmland birds in late winter and early spring on arable and mixed farms. It supplements crops of wild bird seed mix with additional seed such as cereal, oilseed and specialised grains like sunflowers, canary seed and millets. No matter how well wild bird seed plots are managed, they will inevitably run out of seed during late winter (December to April), a period known as the 'hungry gap'. Supplementary feeding plugs the hungry gap and enables farmland birds to enter the breeding season in a strong position.

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Environmental Land Management blog series: 1/ We answer your questions about the scheme

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While the industry appears to have well and truly embarked on the transition into a 'new era' now, a level of uncertainty remains around the new funding opportunities and ongoing changes to agri-environment schemes.

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The Environmental Land Management scheme - What does the latest update tell us?

It's well understood that the turn of a new year often brings with it some updated farm policy. Evolving requirements, subsidy scheme adaptations and legislation are certainly nothing new.

This is the case again for 2022, only the changes ahead are some of the biggest our industry has seen. It's no understatement when we say there's a been a lot for farmers (and advisors) to digest in recent months and there are still some new policy elements to be clarified. 

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Making the Sustainable Farming Incentive work for your farm: Crop production and environmental management don’t need to be competitive

At the beginning of December the government released further detail on the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and how the widescale roll-out to all growers will work in 2022.

Before we look further into the options available to growers later in the blog, it is worth emphasising from the start that the SFI offers a real opportunity for growers to align and unify their crop production goals with their environmental goals. We know that crop and food production are central to farm decision-making but, given what we've seen of the SFI so far, it appears it will be easier to farm in a way that offers environmental benefits while supporting sustainable crop production systems - and receive financial support for doing so.

So, what do we know about the Sustainable Farming Incentive?

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The important role of supplementary feeding

As a nation, I think it's fair to say we are all interested in the well-being of our wildlife, particularly those species which can often be at risk. While looking at some of the more recent bird count results published by the RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), it's clear to see that conservation efforts in the UK are starting to pay back and produce a slow but positive increase in our songbird populations. But the work is far from over.

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Getting the best from your fallow

​With more growers now getting involved with Countryside Stewardship, a key option that many are selecting is the AB15 two-year legume fallow. This option is proving to be particularly popular as growers weigh up the pros and cons of various break crops, including oilseed rape.

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When it rains it pours: Managing your wild bird seed and game crops

​Unpredictable weather seems to be the order of the day at the moment. After what was a very dry and cold April, May has brought about warmer temperatures and a considerable amount of rainfall. At Kings, much of our time had been spent advising growers not to drill wild bird seed and game cover crops too early but given the drastic change in weather, we're now finding that many simply cannot get onto plots because it is too wet.

Now that we are entering the peak planting window from mid-May through to mid-June, I've compiled some timely points of advice to help you make the most of the next four weeks. 

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Stepping into a new season

For those of you managing shoots or overseeing any sporting activity, I don't doubt that you will have had an array of challenges to contend with. With so much change it can be difficult to think about what's next, but there's still plenty to get off the ground as we look ahead to 2021/2022. As the industry embarks on a whole-farm approach to environmental land management, the ways that farmers are paid to manage the land is changing and 2021 marks the start of a new chapter for environmental policy. For farms with sporting interests, there are some considerable benefits to be seen and a lot of food for thought.

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'Farming is changing': The end of the BPS era

With 2021 now underway, we are officially at the beginning of the end of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) era. The transition to the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme has started, and we're sure that many of you are wondering what this move is going to entail.

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Supporting your farmland birds this winter

With increasingly erratic weather patterns - this year being no exception - one thing that remains constant is the lack of food availability for farmland birds over the course of the winter and early spring months.  

When out on farm, we are often shown some really excellent wild bird seed mix plots which provide a mass of food for our seed-eating birds, but no matter how much care and attention is given to these plots, birds will invariably run out of seed by January. This is where supplementary winter feeding comes in...

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Countryside Stewardship can help with difficult-to-farm areas

In our industry, we might be forgiven for thinking 'we've seen it all' at times, but nothing could have prepared anyone for the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it is having on our lives, both at home and at work.

Reducing the risk to our customers and team is our number one priority, so we've been adopting new ways of working to make sure we're still able to support growers and provide valuable technical advice from afar. Who would have thought that a combination of phone calls, video conferences, and social media platforms could help us to safely deliver our services to farm businesses of all shapes and sizes?

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Can you benefit from bare land?

​Although the sun is out (as I write this anyway) I recognise that many areas of land are still plenty wet enough, and getting jobs done is tricky enough without getting covered in mud as soon as you hit a waterlogged bit of ground. That said, the upside is that many growers will be reviewing cropping plans on almost a weekly basis to ensure they are reflective of current conditions. 

With potentially 50% of the UK winter wheat crop sown there remains, subject to your area, a significant proportion of land yet to be planted. Spring crop opportunities remain unpredictable so, if some bare land is looking a likely scenario for the farm on which you work, you may want to think about the opportunities associated with it.

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