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The best cover crops for the part-time keeper

The right cover can make all the difference - here's some advice to help you choose well

Cover crops can do many things to enhance a shoot:

  • Provide options for early-season drives when the woods might have too much leaf on the trees to push pheasants out
  • Link areas of land where there are no natural transfer points such as hedges or ditches
  • Give more options in terms of areas we can shoot, eg transforming a massive hill field into a haven for game to be flushed.
  • Provide wildlife with shelter during the winter, cover from predators during the spring and a significant food source at all times of the year
shooting by cover crops

Planning is as important as selection when it comes to cover crops

What’s best to grow?

To reduce yearly management and time pressures, I recommend introducing a three-crop/mix rotation: annual maize or cereal-based wild bird seed mix, biennial kale (with careful planning) and a perennial mix that has a selection of seed-bearing crops.

All too often, we see drives full of birds at certain times of day during the week, even in the poor covers, but what is often overlooked is the fact that they are just going there to get some food and then straight off to 
a nice warm bit of scrub out of the 
way because there is nothing to hold them. If your covers are good, warm, thick and full of food, when you come to shoot on a Saturday they should also be full of birds.

Best cover crops –  advice from the experts

Maize is a central cover 
for most DIY shoots. It is reliable 
and easy to establish by following some basic husbandry steps, says Chris Bright of Bright Seeds.

  • A good seedbed is essential: maize hates compaction so ploughing and/or sub-soiling is advised.
  • Be wary of drilling too early, and ensure the crop has enough fertilizer to get away quickly — some maize drills enable placement fertilizer to be slotted in next to the planted seed.
  • A herbicide programme to ensure a clean crop must be implemented — game birds, especially partridges, like clean 
soil under the canopy.
  • Choosing a game maize able to withstand the rigours of the whole shooting season is essential, so avoid the commercial silage maize and use proper game cover seed.
Maize crops

Maize is the keeper’s choice of cover crop, but adding something else will enhance it – for your birds and the Guns

Meehal Brint of Kings Crops says:

Before suggesting mixtures my first piece of advice is always the same — take time to plan:

  • Who will prepare the plot?
  • Who will drill the seed?
  • When can the land be drilled?
  • Should it comply with 
a stewardship scheme?
  • Is there fodder requirement 
at the end of the season?
  • Who will apply fertilizers 
and agrochemicals?
  • Can anyone inspect for pest species? This is particularly important if establishing kale.
  • Finally — keep things simple.
seed bed for cover crops

A good seedbed is essential, as is making sure it suits your chosen crop

Tim Furbank, Oakbank 
Game & Conservation advises:

  • Much depends on what equipment the syndicate has access to and the accessibility and size of the game cover plots. If a syndicate member is 
a farmer they will be able to drill, spray and fertilize the plots. That means your choice of crop is only limited by the soil type and aspect of the plot. You should be able to grow most straights — maize, sorghum and so on — or preferably crops with more conservation benefits, such as mixes including brassicas, quinoa and millet linseed.
  • If access 
to equipment is limited, I would 
advise many DIY syndicates to go 
for longer-term crops such as chicory, canary grass and fennel or planting some strips 
of miscanthus.
  • Taking care of crops in the establishment year is crucial; there is no point investing in perennials if you don’t get the establishment right. Make sure weeds are dealt with prior to drilling and sow according to your seed supplier’s recommended seed rate and row widths.
  • In my experience, people are still drilling perennials in far too tight row widths and the complaint is usually that the birds won’t go in them. Weed-free and wide rows are more accessible and attractive to game.