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Covercrop makeover

The Hall estate shoot, Devon, owned by Jeremy Boyd, has entered a period of expansion. New keeper Steve Snell has incorporated six new drives and three new release pens. The hills, valleys, hedgerows and mature woodland were already here; the remaining step was to ensure his new birds would stay put. He called on the covercrop know-how of Kings Game Cover and Conservation Crops, based in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, and 45 acres of covercrop later the shoot was ready.

ST visited the estate with Kings? expert Richard Barnes, here to initiate Paul Beasley, the company?s new agent in the south-west area and a keeper for 25 years at the nearby Molland estate. The first drive had a classic Devonian structure: a steep incline, sloping down towards mature woodland, where Steve had placed a release pen. It was not hard to imagine how well the birds would fly, but how to ensure they would be at the top of the hill in the first place?

?Here, the pheasants will roost in the woods at the bottom of the slope, but their natural inclination is to go up a hill in the mornings, so on a shoot day, in theory, they will gravitate to high covercrop to feed,? said Steve, confidently. ?You want a good feeder crop, such as maize, to make the climb worth their while. All the birds are line-fed with a spinner on the back of a quad, so I can tease mine out a bit further each time.?

?On a steep slope such as this you want the cover planted back from the brow of the hill. Ideally, the birds will take off before reaching the incline, so they will stay at the 90º angle,? explained Richard, planting a virtual image in the sky with his hands. ?It means they won?t see the Guns until high in the air. If you have kale, for example, it is worth planting a higher plant, such as maize, at the take-off end, as that will encourage birds into the air. When you plant the crop on the slope they will often fly down the contours of the hill and be too low for the Guns.?

?Another reason to tuck plantations behind the brow of the hill is that some people find them an eyesore,? added Paul. ?A clapped out strip of millet on a pretty valley can be a scar on the landscape. Remember most people who visit the countryside are there for the scenery, and we must do the best PR job that we can.?

Richard admits that the reason some estates want to push the covercrops behind the edge of the slope is to keep beaters out of sight. ?There is not usually an us-and-them mentality in shooting, but some shoots do prefer to create the illusion that the birds are pouring over the Guns as if by magic. The mechanics of a shoot, whether crops or beaters, are never seen.?

Being March, there was no sign of the crops when we went to the top of the slope to see the launchpad for the pheasants, but the plot was already laid out. ?You can see that Steve is ready to go and has fenced off the plantations. Forward planning is everything,? said Richard, ?and when it comes to covercrops, size matters! You want to have your plots as big as possible ? indeed, they can?t really be too big. I?m not just saying that because I want to sell you the seed!

I worked for many years as a keeper and found through bitter experience that a small cover strip won?t give the birds the confidence to hold.? ?There is maize and there is maize,? said Paul. ?On an exposed estate such as this, where there have been 90mph winds this year, a lightweight maize will be flattened. If it is flat by December you?ve wasted time and money. Here we planted a ?poacher?s maize?, which is much more resilient and hardy. Again, it is about giving your pheasants the confidence to stay in an area that will give them cover, shelter and food.? On a windy estate, tall canary grass can be useful as a windbreak. A perennial plant, it can last for a decade, though can take a year to get established.

Kale seed planted elsewhere was treated to withstand the constant threat of flea beetle, an aphid that is the scourge of keepers nationwide. ?It is a voracious feeder that will munch through your brassicas,? said Richard. ?Your whole plot can be destroyed in days. The treatment acts like rat bait for the beetles and, while you may be paying £10 an acre more for the special seeds, it more than outweighs a lost crop in early summer that will require re-drilling. Also, the treated seed is more successful than untreated, so you do not need to plant the same amount per acre.?

A recurring issue as Richard makes his round of keepers throughout the UK is that there can be conflict with resident farmers over what to plant and where. With the financial incentives of the Single Farm Payment (SFP) and the Entry Level Stewardship scheme (ELS), farmers can profit from the work keepers are doing anyway, so open channels of communication are vital.

?I would recommend that everybody meets in advance of planting to make sure an overall strategy is followed. It is often about give and take, but you will save money on headache pills.? At the Hall estate, a tenant farmer needed to plant an acreage of set-aside with wild bird cover to meet SFP guidelines, so Steve ensured it was done with maize and sunflower, ideal for his pheasants, though kale and quinoa might be an alternative. As part of another plot for the ELS, they planted a wild birdseed mix of kale, triticale and linseed to stay within scheme regulations.

Kings carried out a soil test (to identify the pH and levels of nitrates, phosphates and potassium) on the estate before recommending which crops to plant. ?All too often keepers will see their crops fail because they are planting the wrong ones. At £11.75 for the test, it can be well worth your while,? said Richard. ?If you can get some farmyard manure then take as much as you can. There is nothing better for covercrops. It is a shrinking commodity with the fall in the number of stock, but a good plastering of that on your crops and they will prosper.?

Richard also warns against assuming you can plant a covercrop where you want, as you may be contravening cross-compliance regulations for safeguarding existing permanent pasture. ?If you are looking to plough a stretch of grassland on arable ground that has not been grass for longer than five years there won?t be a problem,? Richard says. ?If it is mature, permanent pasture, with established and local varieties of grass and wild flowers, you?re more likely to get permission to build a house on it than plough it up!? Better safe than sorry, is his advice. Get an Environment Impact Assessment carried out in order to avoid the expense of replanting, which can be high if the ground once had specialist cultivars peculiar to that region.

?If you have land in places such as Exmoor or the Pennines then be especially careful, as it is something DEFRA is looking to clamp down on. Try to avoid causing soil compaction by driving too often through your crops. The seeds need aerated soil; sub-soiling every few years should be considered before ploughing begins. Most farms will have the kit, but check with them as they?ll know what works best on their patch.?

To contact Paul Beazley, tel (01769) 540844.