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Covercrops to the rescue

This year has been challenging for everyone involved in agriculture, game shoots ? both wild and released ? and conservation projects. I feel for farmers and keepers who have seen their hard work, time and effort swept away by unprecedented rainfall or severe pest problems. With this in mind, it is important to battle on to make the most of the year and look to 2013 to reverse population slumps caused by 2012?s extraordinary conditions.

As Perdix mentioned (Country Diary, 17 October), according to the Code of Good Shooting Practice: ?Shoot managers must endeavour to enhance wildlife conservation and the countryside?. This would help shooting on many levels ? from improving its reputation among ?townies? to developing habitat to aid both wild and released game production. Potentially, it could help prevent the loss of species many people hold dear, too. These include the brown hare, grey partridge, lapwing and corn bunting, as well as a range of butterflies and insects.

With planning and a little well-timed advice, farmers and shoot managers can help insect and wild bird populations make a fighting comeback. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has proven time and again that shooting must look at the ?bigger picture? and manage habitats to provide food and shelter for birds from chick to adult, as well as safe havens for beneficial insects. This has become more apparent with the intensification of agriculture to meet modern food production needs over the past 70 years.

It may seem premature to start thinking about next year?s Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) or Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) applications, or next year?s covercrop programme, but a little planning now can save complications further down the line. The majority of stewardship options, when well planned, implemented and managed, will also benefit gamebirds and shooting interests.

So what can farmers or shoot managers do now to help win the battle for shooting and conservation?

Overwinter shelter and feed

The shooting community has been using covercrops for decades. Maize and kale still work well and there is a place for them in your plan. However, when you sit down to plot next season?s cover, why not think about trying a wild bird seed option?

I?m not suggesting turning every block of cover into a wild bird seed mix, but instead of straight maize with sorghum around the edge, you could use a complementary seed that can tolerate the same herbicides as maize. For example, a mix of triticale, linseed, white, red and reed millet offers another feed element to game and farmland birds. In addition, it can act as a windbreak, is eligible for funding and helps promote the positive aspects of our sport. This makes it a win-win for all involved including wildlife.

The same applies to kale plots. Instead of planting straight kale, why not look at introducing something like the Kings? Moir mix? This is a kale-based wild bird seed mix that can be established with a corresponding herbicide strategy.

If you do use wild bird seed mixes, you will be eligible for the new supplementary feeding option available in stewardship next year to help combat the ?hungry gap? (News, 21 November).

As an adviser on farm, I would always advocate a mixture of annual, bi-annual and perennial cover and wild bird seed. This will minimise your exposure to the effects of poor establishment in a year such as the one we have experienced so far. It spreads the cost over several years instead of having to re-drill everything every season. It also means that when the topper is brought out in February and March, not all the habitats are removed, so game and farmland birds will have sanctuary to escape the elements and raptors at a critical time of year.

Increase nesting cover

Following World War II, farmers were financially and morally encouraged to farm every inch of their land for food production. This led to hedgerows being removed or crops farmed right up to the hedge bottom.

Stewardship schemes have helped many replace what was once lost. A 1m to 3m tussocky grass margin planted next to a hedgerow or woodland provides nesting cover for ground-nesting hen birds, such as grey partridges and pheasants. While 1m is enough, 3m is better because it makes the job of a hunting fox, rat, weasel or stoat that much harder.

Beetle banks, comprising a tussocky grass strip, also provide valuable nesting cover, especially when the ends stop short of the field margin. That?s because the crop acts as a ?blind? to mustelids and foxes, as well as making fieldwork more practical for the farmer. Both habitats offer useful over-wintering habitat for insects that will help aphid control and chick food production.

If all these options are put together and combined with supplementary feeding and legal predator control, then a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of wild gamebirds and farmland wildlife in general should occur.

Marc Bull is an adviser with Kings Game Cover and Conservation Crops. For more information visit