The main arable crops may seem to grab all the headlines and receive particularly cosseted treatment but other types of crops are equally as important both in terms of revenue production and environmental conservation. It may seem strange to include game cover crops, which are beloved by the shooting fraternity, as having environmental benefits as their primary aim is to assist with the killing of wild animals but, when used correctly, such crops can be hugely beneficial to a wide range of species including, paradoxically, the game species themselves.
In the past, there has been a tendency to simply sow game cover crops with little regard to maximising their success but these crops require every bit as much care and attention as other crops on the farm. Basic husbandry techniques such as testing the soil of the growing site for levels of organic matter, degree of compaction, pH, nutrients and trace elements should be the first step and the results may determine the species most likely to succeed. Wherever possible, some degree of crop rotation is preferable particularly with brassicas such as kale which may be susceptible to club root.
In general, the choice of crop will depend largely on the proposed use of the cover. Maize, for example, is good for partridges and pheasants but generally of little use in attracting farmland birds. For this reason, it is unsuitable in cases where DEFRA Countryside Stewardship financial assistance is being sought (or continuation of the earlier Environmental Stewardship). Maize does remain a very popular game cover choice providing both feed and cover with some varieties standing well into the season. In many cases, a seed mix may be preferable and specialist seed suppliers can provide many tailor-made mixes. In order to be considered as a “wild bird seed mix” for DEFRA approval purposes, at least three different seed types need to be included none of which exceed 70% of the total amount by weight. As mentioned above, maize is to be excluded as it is generally too large and some sorghums are also considered to be unsuitable as they do not produce seed. Many different seeds can be included in game cover seed mixes with some of the most common being kale, quinoa, cereals, millet, linseed, grain sorghum, mustard and fodder radish.
In many cases, a combination of different game cover crops may prove most effective and careful planning can make the best possible use of the land. Some perennial cover crops can provide interest and, although they provide little or no feed value, they give good cover. They are often expensive to establish but, being perennial, offer lasting value. Artichokes, miscanthus, chicory and canary grass are all worth considering. For main areas of planting, some of the most popular game cover crops are: maize, triticale, kale, forage rape, fodder radish, mustard, utopia and fast-growing brassicas such as stubble turnips.
Having selected the main crops to be employed, the serious job of putting the plan in action begins. A useful technique is to incorporate a “nurse crop” which looks after its charge. As an example, sowing mustard along with kale often works well due to the speedy growth of the mustard which often takes the full brunt of any attacks by flea-beetle or pigeons allowing the kale to emerge unscathed. Another important consideration is not to be tempted to sow too early. Many of these crops such as maize, millet and sorghum can be regarded as being semi-tropical and need adequate warmth. There is no real rush as the primary aim is often to grow cover which will stand well into winter. Providing cover and feed is only part of the picture and well planted shooting land will also include provisions for nesting and brood-rearing so other crops or mixtures may prove beneficial. The leaving of grass margins around fields is becoming common practice and, especially when combined with hedgerows, this provides great nursery facilities. The grass should only be partly mown with other parts allowed to form mounds and tufts encouraging insects and providing cover. An adequate supply of insects is essential to many young birds especially grey partridge chicks. Unfortunately, many of these insects also happen to be pests of food crops and the use of pesticides is often cited as one of the main reasons for the decline in numbers of some bird species. It is, therefore, good practice to have designated areas where no broad leaf weed pesticides are used. Another way of attracting insects is to sow a “nectar flower mix”. This typically includes sainfoin, trefoil, vetch and clovers and attracts butterflies and bumblebees. Other sowings of wildflowers such as cornfield annuals can offer similar benefits and also look pretty good too. Many people mourn the passing of the traditional hay meadow but seeds are now available for not only the meadow flowers but even some of the old traditional grasses and, with careful planting, a previously uninspiring site can be transformed into a wildlife haven.