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The history of Britain’s game crops

The rise of dedicated cover crops for shooting is really the result of numerous changes in farming over the decades, writes Mike Swan

It’s been almost six decades since I went for my first ever day’s beating at Clandon Park, near Guildford. With Dad out picking-up behind the Guns, the lovely headkeeper, Cliff Shelton, took me under his wing. In those days there were dairy herds on most of the farms, and we drove a patch of kale that was being strip grazed by the cows. I especially remember three things from that day; the first was the difficulty of keeping my place in a crop that was taller than me; the second was the surprising number of pheasants that we flushed; and the third was Cliff’s howl of pain when I hit his right hand with my beating stick… even an eight-year-old can make a grown man’s eyes water if he catches him fair and square.


Fodder crops

Back then cover crops were all but unheard of; farming was much more mixed and every farm had some fodder crops for livestock, even in the most arable parts of the country. In this mixed-farming environment, the average keeper had little need for dedicated game crops; he could simply drive what the farms provided. 

The one downside of this was that the keeper had no control over where the cover was; that was a farming decision, and it was likely to go around with the crop rotation. As a result, choosing a site to show high birds was not always on, but I dare to suggest that Guns were less besotted with high birds back then anyway. Driven shooting was much more about harvesting game than testing marksmanship. 

I did not realise it at the time, but farming then was in a period of rapid change, and 10 years later, when I subsequently went off to university, the Clandon tenant farmers had given up their dairies, and with that the kale had gone. 

A beater gets to work among a very healthy cover crop of kale

At a more general level, surviving dairies were getting bigger, and rather than strip-grazing kale, they were moving to growing maize for silage, which was then fed to the cows housed ‘indoors’, at least in southern England. This, I assume, led to the discovery that maize made good game cover, with the added advantage that you can grow it year after year in the same place, without the equivalent problems of kale sickness when the latter is grown continuously in the same place. And so began the concept of growing crops specifically to hold and show pheasants and redlegs.

The fact that maize crops tends to break down before the end of the season was an issue, but in truth, most late-winter pheasant driving had been ‘covert shooting’ from woods anyway, so this was a minor problem.

By the early 1980s, when my game adviser career began at what was then the Game Conservancy Trust, the advisory team developed the concept of growing strips of kale and maize alongside each other, to give the cover variety. If the kale grew well, it could be kept in place for a second year, and then swapped for maize and vice versa, allowing a crop rotation within the site which, given good soil management and regular liming, overcame the issues with kale sickness.

Game shoots, when run well, do an awful lot for wildlife compared with some modern farms


Food patch

Meanwhile, and to some extent in parallel, an alternative approach to cover crops came from the US. Over there, feeding of game was largely illegal to prevent individuals from over-exploiting what is, in effect, a public resource. The response to this was for people to ‘forget’ to harvest part of their crop, and soon the concept of planting a ‘food patch’ was developed. This made its way across the Atlantic as a cocktail, usually called southern game mix, which included maize, sunflowers, buckwheat, canary seed and tic beans. For cooler areas this was adapted to a northern mix, based on kale, beans and cereals.

Next, in 1992, came ‘set-aside’, a scheme where farmers were paid not to farm some of their land, to help reduce the food surpluses that came from the EU Common Agricultural Policy. There were some fairly silly and strict rules to start with, and much set-aside was far from being conservation friendly, but soon there was an allowance to grow ‘unharvestable mixtures’ for wildlife, even if there was no direct financial incentive to do so. This led to the development of wild bird seed mixes, a concept that has become a key component of modern countryside stewardship schemes.

Adult grey partridges nest in grass margins and will benefit from wild bird seed mixes

Compared with straight maize or kale, such mixtures provide a considerable biodiversity benefit. They usually offer mixed seed sizes to support a wide range of farmland birds in winter, as well as being a better habitat for small mammals. The mixed and more tangled cover is likely to offer nesting sites for insects, and adding in a few wild flowers can do a great deal to support pollinators in the summer as well.


Tackling weeds

A big problem when growing game cover in the same site each year is the build-up of weeds. Leaving the crop all winter allows the weeds to complete their life cycle and set their seed in a way that normal farming does not. This becomes a serious issue with mixtures, where there is rarely an option to choose a selective herbicide that would not kill many of its components, although specialist game cover suppliers are alive to this. Bright Seeds, for example, offers a brassica-based mix called Grass Buster. It contains kale, mustard, fodder radish and linseed, plus a bit of phacelia for the bees, and is unaffected by herbicides. I have found it helpful where there are wild oat infestations.

Mike Swan walks-up a strip of tall, dense reed canary grass, which provides excellent game cover


Alternating strips

Wanting to support wildlife, but needing the reliability of some maize cover to hold and drive partridges, Marlborough Downs keeper Phil Holborow was one of the first to work out the value of using alternating strips of wild bird seed and maize for his main drives. 

Phil explains: “This helps the songbirds as well as adding extra interest for the pheasants and redlegs compared with maize alone.” By making the strips a full sprayer-width wide, he is also able to spray out the weeds in the maize. Meanwhile, rotating their position with the wild bird seed each year prevents any serious long-term build-up in the seed bank. One of the great things that shoots increasingly do is to help steer countryside stewardship applications to maximise biodiversity benefit. 

On my own shoot, I welcome the opportunity to use any awkward corner for wildlife, and have found Bright’s Pheasant and Finch mix invaluable for improving the amount of holding and escape cover, even in places where it has no particular value as a drive. It contains triticale, millet and linseed to offer feed value in the first winter, with kale mixed in to provide cover for a second winter.  

Using seed mixes in place of geometric maize blocks can also help us better fit into our landscape and improve the aesthetics, especially if we join them in by planting native hedges and clumps of bushes. I had a conversation on this subject with National Gamekeepers’ Organisation chairman David Pooler at the recent Welsh Game Fair. As David said: “We need to offer a more rounded package, because in the end the Guns will appreciate their day more if they feel that we are delivering for the countryside as a whole”. I fully agreed — Guns like to see those tweety birds.