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How to care for your gamecover crops

Gamecover will pay dividends when the shooting season starts, but it needs looking after now, says Liam Bell.


A strong gamecrop will hold more birds and, on shoot days, those birds are less likely to flush in one go

Planting gamecover crops is one thing. Getting them to grow to their full potential is another. We nurture ours through the first few important weeks after planting and, providing the weather is on our side, most of them will ripen and stay standing until the end of January.

The better the crop, the more birds it will hold and the easier it will be to drive it on shoot days. A weak crop with lots of gaps will hold fewer birds and the ones it does hold will probably all flush in one go. Impressive but not great for filling the bag or spreading the shooting across the Gun line.

The better the gamecover crop, the more birds it will hold

Our gamecover crops, like most, are planted in the same place every year. They are sited where they are to provide either feeding or holding cover, flushing cover on shoot days or a combination of all three. Planting the same thing on the same site year on year can lead to problems with weeds and make it more likely that the ground will become deficient in nutrients and trace elements. The longer the ground has been used for gamecrops, the harder it is to establish the next one.

Farmers rotate their crops for this reason and it is why new crops on fresh ground grow so well. Moving the crops when the ground gets stale isn’t an option for us, nor is it always possible for us to rotate the crop itself, so we have to do the best we can with what we’ve got and try to make sure that whatever has been planted reaches its full potential.

The following are the main problems associated with older sites.


It is increasingly difficult to keep gamecrops completely weed-free because no herbicide kills every type

Weed competition

When we were allowed to use Atrazine on maize, the ground was as clean as a whistle and we only had to spray once. Now it is becoming harder to keep crops weed- free, not just the maize that is actually a bit easier to keep clean than the rest, but brassica crops and cereal mixes as well.

The problem is that there is no herbicide, either pre-emergent or post- emergent, that will kill every type of weed. This is why you tend to get a build-up of the ones that are difficult to control. Planting something different as a break crop every few years helps, as does keeping a diary (in addition to the spray records) of what has been sprayed on which crops and for what. I make a note of the weeds we’ve had problems with so that I can plan the spraying round them the following year.

If your crops become particularly weedy and what you’ve planted struggles to get away, but a traditional break crop is too difficult to grow because of the height of the plot above sea level or because of high rainfall or soil types, you might have to plant something that doesn’t stand as well but that you can at least keep clean.

We’ve planted a cereal mix on a couple of our patches for this reason. They aren’t as good as a kale crop or a block of maize, but they clean up the ground and usually provide the birds with both food and cover until after Christmas.


If your crops show signs of nutrient deficiency, it might be worth getting them sap tested

A lack of nutrients

A lack of nutrients or trace elements is fairly easy to spot. Weak plants and pale leaves are classic signs. The difficult part is finding out what they are actually short of. Soil testing works and is really best done before planting. If the fertiliser was applied at the recommended rates, the nutrient levels shouldn’t be too far off, though you may need to top-dress the crop with some more fertiliser or spray it with a foliar feed at a later date.

If you think you have put enough fertiliser on and the plants still seem to be struggling it is worth getting them sap tested. Sap tests are exactly that; the sap is taken from the stems of a few plants and tested for deficiencies in trace elements.

If there is a deficiency and it is a recurring problem you will probably only need to get the plant’s sap tested the first year. If you make a note of what you are putting on, you can spray the next crop if it shows similar signs with the same stuff the following year.


The tiny flea beetle can do enormous amounts of damage, particularly to brassica crops next to oilseed rape

Attacks by pests

Pest attacks on gamecrops can have a real effect and in some cases render the crop unviable. Slugs can eat off huge parts of a crop if left unchecked. They are especially bad when the newly planted crop is following second-year kale or anything that has been left in the ground for more than 12 months.

Kale and brassicas need checking for flea beetle. Flea beetles appear to be on the increase now that some seed dressings have been banned. Brassica crops next to fields of oilseed rape are particularly at risk. Look out for small flea-like beetles moving around on hot sunny days. Check for “shot-holes” in the leaves and spray for them the moment they appear. The crop may need re-spraying at 10 to 14-day intervals until it is well established.

Fruit-fly larvae will destroy maize seedlings and need looking out for. The larvae of turnip flies, which look like tiny maggots, will eat away the roots of brassica crops such as kale.

Diseases and fungal problems

Diseases and fungal problems are becoming more common and, because there are so many of them, harder to identify. If our crops look sick, the colour changes or anything appears on the leaves, I call our agronomist or send a photo to his mobile. He can often identify it from the photograph; if not he pops out and has a proper look.

Some of the more common problems such as eye-spot in maize can spread quite rapidly. While they don’t look like much of a problem to start with, they need sorting as soon as they are spotted or the plants will weaken and won’t last the winter.