Like many syndicates, this year’s BASC/Musto award winners are looking to improve their cover crops for next season. Following a visit to their shoot in Cambridgeshire, GAYNOR ROBERTS highlights the benefits of a good cover crop plan and MICHAEL BEARMAN from David Bright Limited explains where to start.
If you’ve ever stood at your peg and watched pheasants flushed from the cover crop in front of you, rise high above the guns and soar back down into the wood behind, you’ll no doubt understand why so much fuss is made about getting them right. Carefully chosen, well positioned and developed over a number of years, cover crops can not only improve your shoot days, they can also improve the biodiversity of your local area.
Now’s the time to start planning your crops and if you’re clever and work closely with the farmer or landowner, you can both benefit from the new Single Farm Payment Scheme.
Jamie Stewart, gamekeeping and wildlife management officer explains: “The key to good birds on a shoot day is the creation of a ‘flow’ of cover. The Single Farm Payment Scheme encourages farmers to plant grass strips and replant and manage hedges and field margins to encourage wildlife. The development of these areas, in conjunction with cover crops, means that your birds will be far less likely to stray as they can work their way around the land feeding, sheltering and even brooding without fear of disturbance.”
Michael Bearman on the Neun Brunnen shoot.
Michael Bearman agrees: “The farmer or landowner is your insight into which cover crops will work and which won’t. This is especially true if you are new to the area and have no knowledge of what happened last year.
“Ask the farmer what the soil is like and what he has drilled previously. Don’t forget though that you are growing these crops for the benefit of your game birds, so the criteria will be different from the farmer planting an agricultural crop. Just because he plants his silage maize at the end of April there is no reason for you to plant your game maize at the same time. In fact this would be foolish. You want your crop to provide cover and feed, ideally until the end of January, while the farmer is looking to harvest as early as possible.
“You need a crop that has good early vigour; good standing ability and one that will make the birds feel safe.”
Take a walk around the shoot and see which crops are still standing, if any. Make a list of what you would like to achieve by planting the crops – do you require warmth, food or better driving or holding cover?
It’s a common complaint that the areas given to shoots for cover crops are the most unproductive on the estate – if this is the case and there’s nothing you can do about it - then have a soil sample done and call in one of the seed merchants to advise you as to what will grow there.
In Cambridgeshire, the Neun Brunnen shoot have had mixed results with their cover crops. Although they flailed through in early December, the maize was still not holding the birds as well as they would have liked. This was due in part to the unseasonable winter – without hard weather the birds had little need for the shelter and warmth of the cover crops.
It is also a reflection on the variety they used. Near the main wood where they would expect to see a good number of birds using the crop, they used forage maize that quickly fell over. By the pond however they used Jimmi, a maize variety from Brights, which has been specially designed to remain strong well into January/February. Like many shoots they also found that some of their game cover crops actually performed too well this year – meaning that partridges especially struggled to penetrate the cover.
‘Jimmi from Brights – a hardy maize variety that has lasted well into January’
Michael Bearman suggested relocating their crops slightly to provide a better ‘flow’ around the shoot and therefore better drives. He also highlighted the need to offer diversity to the birds: “Maize may grow well in the Cambridgeshire soil but the syndicate run the risk of losing the birds to neighbouring shoots with more varied crops. Look instead to use a mix which, although more difficult to establish, will reap greater rewards in terms of holding the pheasants and encouraging small wild birds.”
‘Pictures A and B show how the cover crops should be repositioned to make the most of a flow of cover round the shoot. Note the zig-zag flailing of the crops.’
So which crop’s for you? RICHARD BARNES from Kings Game Cover and Conservation Crops runs through some of the ‘straight’ game cover crops available:
Maize continues to be the number one game cover choice across much of the UK and Eire. Its combination of cover and high quality feed ensures it meets the demands of most growers - however be sure to select a variety that lasts well into January.
Kale provides a strong, winter hardy crop with the potential to provide cover for two years. Like all brassicas it’s very hungry and needs a lot of fertilizer so is not ideal for set aside where you can’t use artificial nutrients. Most seed merchants now treat the seed to protect against flea beetle.
Millet provides large volumes of valuable nutritious seed that appeals to all game and farmland birds, particularly yellowhammers. Care should be taken not to drill too early as it favours warmer soils.
Excellent for repelling deer and hares – but make sure the farmer is happy about you growing this on his land, especially if he farms cattle, as it’s poisonous to cloven hoofed animals. Sorghum has the potential to produce a seedhead so it’s ideal for encouraging small farmland birds such as finches.
Quinoa is popular with game and farmland birds alike and can provide a vast amount of high protein food if given appropriate amounts of fertilizer.
Artichokes are perfect for those rough areas of ground where nothing else will grow. They provide an excellent windbreak but care must be taken not to let the crop get too thick.
Canary grass is a superb wind-proof crop that provides year round cover whilst encouraging insects. Care must be taken to ensure it does not get out of control. For maximum benefit it needs to be drilled in wide rows.
Generally used within mixtures, buckwheat produces very distinctive pyramid shaped seed that is enjoyed by all game birds.
Linseed is a versatile crop used both as a straight and in mixtures. Enjoyed by partridges and farmland birds.
Sunflowers are hugely popular as cover crops and are a good source of early season food.
Triticale is a wheat/rye hybrid that retains seeds right through the winter, allowing game and farmland birds access to a valuable and nutritious feed source. It is particularly successful on poor soils and will tolerate relatively low pH levels.
Phacelia can be used on its own on set-aside, and when used in mixtures its quick growth helps the establishment of other crops and attracts insects.