The early months of the year are tough on farmland birds

PUBLISHED: 10:44 21 February 2013 | UPDATED: 17:58 24 January 2018

A keeper replenishes a feeder

A keeper replenishes a feeder

The early months of the year are tough on farmland birds, says Graham Downing

Hedgerows which four months ago were heavy with scarlet hips and crimson haws are now stripped bare. The wild fruits of autumn have gone and the gleanings of harvest-time are but a memory. The first four months of the year are a difficult time for farmland birds, a time when they must pick over any seeds still clinging to dead weed stems and wild grasses and live off their meagre fat reserves if they are to survive. It is known as the ‘hungry gap’.

This year, that gap has been especially wide and deep. Last summer’s cold, wet weather made it hard for farmers to establish environmental stewardship crops such as the wild bird seed mixes which are so important for seed-eating birds such as finches and linnets. As a result, the food shortage is even worse than usual.

On shooting estates wild birds have long been able to share the grain scattered daily down woodland rides or placed in feeders by gamekeepers to feed pheasants and partridges. Should you get the chance to do so, take a look at a feed ride after the gamekeeper has been past with his quadbike and grain spinner on a winter’s morning, and amongst the pheasants scratching in the straw you will also find chaffinches, greenfinches and a host of other birds taking advantage of a free lunch.

It is no accident that where there is an active game shoot you will usually find healthy populations of seed-eating birds.

With wheat now in excess of £200 a ton, spreading grain on the ground is not cheap, but where gamekeepers rely specifically upon wild game birds rather than those that are reared and released, daily feeding will continue right into the spring in order to ensure that breeding hens go into the nesting season in the best possible condition. The benefits for other wild birds are invaluable.

Now officials at Natural England have cottoned on to the benefits of late winter feeding. After studying research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which shows that bird numbers can double when feed is provided for them in late winter, they have come up with a plan which could provide a lifeline to farmland birds.

From the beginning of this year farmers with appropriate environmental stewardship agreements have been encouraged to introduce a regime of late-winter feeding of vulnerable wild birds. Just as many householders feed garden birds at their bird tables, so farmers will be paid out of European funds to complement other food sources on the farm which have become depleted in late winter, by spreading grain on the ground or placing it in specially-designed feeders.

Hopefully the hungry gap will be filled, and the benefits of winter feeding that have been amply demonstrated on shooting estates can be brought to the wider countryside.

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