As temperatures plummet across the UK this week – and for pretty much the first time this winter – it's timely to begin spreading supplementary seed in key areas across the farm for our farmland birds.
Sown wild bird seed mixtures may continue to do their job at this time of year but as they are depleted, many birds are at risk of starvation later in the winter. As food turns scarcer and birds become more vulnerable, they rely on farmers spreading supplementary seed well into April to help cover them through the so-called 'hungry gap'.
With most agri-environment schemes in England stipulating that feeding should begin from 1st December, it's important to check your agreement details now to ensure compliance and payment later next year. If you're considering starting, here are my 'top tips' to bear in mind:
Location, location, location
Firstly, consider how many areas you would like to feed. You should ideally aim for two or three locations which are well spread across the farm but make sure they are easily accessible so the task does not become too time-consuming. The majority of agri-environment schemes require at least two different feeding areas – check your own agreement prescriptions to be sure.
Most of the seed should be spread on trackways or other hard-standing areas where it is easily visible to birds. Such surfaces also help to stop the seeds rotting down too quickly. Where possible, choose sites near to existing plots of sown wild bird seed mixtures (as the birds will be used to feeding here) and next to hedgerows to help them evade avian predators. Roger Mann (pictured) of Littleworth Farm has an ideal location on his trackway alongside hedgerows.
Avoid feeding near farm buildings or watercourses to discourage vermin.
The number of farmland birds visiting feeding areas will vary through the winter. Colder snaps tend to encourage greater activity, whereas a warm spell can lead to reduced seed consumption. In order to avoid waste and reduce the risk of vermin, you should be prepared to increase or decrease the amount of seed you spread accordingly.
How to feed
You may have your own preferred method for feeding – I know some farmers use slug pelleters, spread by hand or (like Roger in the photo) you might just cut a bag and empty it off the quad bike! There really is no right or wrong answer but in my experience, I've found the best results are when seeds are thinly spread over a length of around 100 metres. Note that some hopper feeding can be undertaken (usually only around 10% of the total amount in agri-environment agreements is permitted), but most of the farmland birds that I have seen prefer to feed in an 'open' environment with seed spread on the ground.
Leading the way for supplementary feeding
Kings supply a wide range of supplementary feeding products, from a large range of seed and mixes (catering for all agri-environment needs) to specially designed vermin-proof Perdix supplementary feed buckets that can be fixed off the ground.
This year, we also have the new Weatherproof Supplementary Feeding Record to make record-keeping simple and to serve as a useful reference tool during any agri-environment inspections. As part of any Stewardship scheme in England, you will be required to note down the amount and mixture of supplementary seed used, the feeding location, the method of feeding and all feeding dates. This book enables that information to be stored easily in one place, while also including some handy tips and a useful bird ID chart that covers some of the species you might see!
Spread the word
Supplementary feeding is not only essential for our farmland birds when food resources are scarce in mid to late winter, but can be extremely rewarding for farmers too. Birds often respond very quickly and I have yet to meet a farmer who isn't visibly delighted to see clouds of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and Linnets gorging the seed they have put out through the winter!
If you want to start supplementary feeding for the first time, would like expert advice, are interested in adding the option to your agri-environment agreement or want more information on any of the Kings products above, please get in touch with the Kings team.
Matt Willmott, Kings technical advisor
For specific advice for your business related to this blog get in touch with Kings.