Nothing brings more pleasure than standing on the top of the Exmoor Hills on a warm evening in late July in a crop full of bees and butterflies
The four Estates managed by Angus Barnes and his team of gamekeepers are a fine example of how sporting interests can provide great benefit to the wider farm environment. Given the ongoing pressure for farmers to consider wildlife and in particular pollinators and farmland birds it is great to see the habitat improvement reaping rewards for all concerned.
The combination of annual (one year), biennial (two year) and perennial (several year) crops planted all work together to provide year round shelter along with the vitally important nectar for pollinators in the summer and seed for farmland birds in the winter.
With several of the farms involved within Environmental Stewardship the owners and tenants often require crops that help them meet the obligations required of them by the relevant scheme. In many areas much of the ‘game’ cover is planted with a selection of seed bearing crops designed specifically to benefit key bird species such as yellowhammer, bunting and linnet.
Whilst the crops are primarily planted for feeding birds in the winter they also have a useful ‘byproduct’. In order to create seeds clearly the plants need to flower and as such key species such as fodder radish, kale and mustard provide a great source of pollen and nectar through the summer. Nothing brings more pleasure than standing on the top of the Exmoor Hills on a warm evening in late July in a crop full of bees and butterflies. The plots are literally buzzing!
The locations of the cover plots are clearly important for each Estate to make the best of the terrain. This in turn this brings much work for the contractors and advisor who help turn the crops from an idea to reality as more often than not they are planted on the thinnest soil on a cold and exposed hill top! With much hard work in terms of soil testing, application of lime and fertiliser as needed and most importantly treating the cover areas as crops good results are achieved. Good crops for game are good plots for farmland birds as they will have a good mix of canopy height, seed availability and also valuable open areas to dry out after wet weather.
The benefit the plots bring to farmland birds in particular is very clear to see. You don’t need to be an expert ornithologist to realise that the concentration of huge flocks of small birds in the winter are seen in and around the cover areas. Exmoor is a beautiful but bleak area and in the winter other than in fields of roots grown for sheep and cattle grazing there is very little else out there to sustain farmland birds through the winter months.
This habitat with its food and cover is complimented by the regular feeding of game throughout the winter months. Farmers in many regions are now paid by the Government to feed farmland birds through the winter – game managers do it for free!
So what crops are grown? Initially maize was grown on the lower lying land as this is good for pheasants however with difficult weather conditions it became clear that an alternative plan was required. To reduce the need to plant all the ground every year strategically located strips of reed canary grass and chicory (both perennial crops) are planted alongside the exposed sites to act as temporary hedges. These hedges help to get the young crops established as the shelter creates a micro climate and through the winter they help to provide valuable cover and protect the seed bearing crops from the worst of the wind.
Kale is a very popular crop but takes a lot of effort to grow so everyone has to work hard to get the crop away. Kale is a winter hardy crop and is great for game as it supplies a robust, umbrella type canopy in the first year. Many of the crops are grazed with sheep at the end of the shooting season by the landowners and farmers so the pressure to get good crops is soon doubled!
Many of the crops are now planted with Multi seed mixtures that contain cereals such as barley and triticale along with linseed and millet. These crops last one year and are great for game and farmland birds.