Throughout the year we try maintain an ample food supply all year round. We do this in a number of ways around the farm from planting specific bird food mixes, managing our hedgerows more sympathetically, leaving the odd weed in some areas and positioning feed stations around the farm.
The areas of wild bird seed mix are vital in maintain our population of small farmland birds. These are our giant bird tables but are actually grown. In the spring we sow blocks the seed mix around the farm; normally these areas are about half a hectare in size and positioned about 500m apart from each other. The location is important as a small bird in winter will only forage for 500m from its roost site. We also locate them close to a hedge or wood to give weather protection and a safe place for the birds to return to if an alarm call is sounded by one of them. The mix is important and we have tried a few different mixes and have had some good crops and weaker ones. The mix we have sown this year is sunflowers, red & white millet, mustard, phacelia, linseed, oats and triticale. We chose these plants as they all give a good yield of seed but at different times of the year. The sunflowers release seeds early which are important as they mean that the small bird put on weight very quickly before the winter sets in. The millet and cereals hold their seed longer in to the winter. We have to help bridge 'the hungry gap' which is through the harsh winter months (Dec- Mar) when natural food is scarce. This year we have also used maize as a structural plant to make it stand up longer under the weight of the snow. We use late cobing maize so that the cobs are immature and do not draw in deer and rats that like to feed on them. This is a trial and has worked but the rate was a little high which has meant that the other plants were smoothers out in their growth stages so the amount of food is a bit low, which means that we are still learning and next year we can adjust the rate.
We maximize our natural food by using correct management of our natural larders, our hedgerows. We have to cut and control the growth of them but we do this on a 3 year cutting rotation. Leaving the hedgerows for three years allow the hedge plants to produce bumper crops of berries in years 2 and 3. Hedges that have been cut that year never produce as many as the budding parts of the plant are removed in the cutting process. The cutting timing is done within the regulated time of year allowed by Natural England and we try and do it when all the berries have been removed by the large numbers of Thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings that descend on to the farm on their migratory routes.
We also supplement these areas throughout the year with hoppers and ground scattered wheat and barn sweepings. All the seed that is taken out of our wheat that has been dressed in the barn is bagged up and store for the real cold snaps. In the last week through this time of snow we have taken out close to a ton of wheat to these area and the pheasants have done a great job keeping the food clear of snow so that the small birds can feed as well. These areas are full of birds currently, large mixed flocks of Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Reed buntings and mixtures of Blue, Great, Coal and Marsh tits. Pat will soon have his nets up to start our program of bird ringing on the farm. I'm sure he will keep you informed as he hangs the nets in these areas.