Sow borage or kale, strictly for the birds

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THIS has been a challenging year for the farming industry. It has also been a difficult year for farmland wildlife, with a cold wet spring severely reducing the success of many of our local wildlife species.

Ground-nesting farmland birds for example, saw many of their nests washed out and many hedgerow and woodland birds struggled to find enough food for their chicks. Summer and autumn brought little respite from the rain, with fewer bumblebees and butterflies on the wing.

Usually, in mild winters before the frost begins to bite, the hedgerows are hanging with red hawthorn berries and rose hips. Dark blue sloe berries too, are often to be seen. This year however, there are very few berries, nuts and seed heads for wildlife to feed on over winter.

To help farmland birds survive the winter, farmers can establish wildbird cover seed crops. The most vulnerable time for birds is late winter to early spring, from February through to April. Seed-producing varieties of crops that can stand up to winter storms are therefore important.

Sowing mixes of triticale and kale has two benefits in that the crop provides seed heads in the triticale and come the spring, nesting cover within the kale. Borage, linseed, quinoa, oats, barley and sunflowers are other crops that provide large amounts of seed.

Including flowering varieties of crops such as borage and linseed helps not only seed-eating birds such as goldfinch, yellowhammer, chaffinch and brambling in winter and ground-nesting birds such as grey partridge, but also helps beneficial insects such as bumblebees.

Bumblebees are important pollinators of agricultural crops such as field beans and fruit such as apples, so it is important to provide additional sources of nectar for these insects.

Field-edge habitat such as wide grass margins and hedge banks, are important areas for insects to over-winter. Creating and then managing these areas is therefore becoming increasingly important not just for wildlife but for the farm business too.

Borders RSPB officer Mike Fraser supports these steps, saying: “The survival and condition of birds over the winter are important in determining the number of birds that breed in the spring.

“The recent study, State of the UK’s Birds, describes how the breeding populations of many farmland species continue to experience steep declines. These include grey partridge (down 91 per cent nationally between 1970 and 2009), corn bunting (down 90 per cent) and yellowhammer (down 56 per cent).

“A few birds, however, have recently bucked the trend, notably tree sparrow (up 73 per cent between 1995 and 2009) and reed bunting (up 30 per cent). Both these species benefit from a good seed supply over the winter, and if they can show signs of a healthy improvement in their populations then, with the help of farmers, other species can too.”

When establishing spring-sown crops next March and April, why not consider creating small plots of wildbird cover areas around the farm?

Where to site the plots is important. Recent surveys have shown that significantly more conservation benefit is gained from plots located in the right place. For example, in a study on corn buntings in Fife, bird numbers increased by six per cent where conservation land management advice was targeted and habitat established. There was, however, a significant drop of 14 per cent in bird numbers where conservation advice was not sought and no wildbird cover plots were created.

Farmers can still access funding for establishing wildbird cover areas under their land managers options (LMO) agreements. For more information contact SAC Consulting on 01835 823322.