Seed-rich habitats

For millennia, agriculture has provided seed-rich habitats that wildlife has evolved to exploit. As a result, many birds have become farmland specialists, relying on these seed-rich habitats for food, especially through the winter.

Historically, weedier crops and diverse rotations created lots of seed feeding opportunities on cultivated land through the seasons. Abundant winter stubbles, fallows and weedy root crops were especially important to wintering birds. Cropping was more often closely connected with livestock and the feeding of grain and seed-rich hay would have supplemented the availability of winter seed food.

Farming has gradually become more specialised and efficient, and the incidental provision of seed-rich habitats is much less likely than in the past. However through targeted effort, it is still possible for modern farming to support wildlife dependent on seed-rich habitats, particularly declining seed-eating birds such as tree sparrows, yellowhammers, grey partridges and corn buntings.


Seed-rich habitat can be provided in a variety of forms on farmland. Sowing specific wild bird seed mixes, leaving areas unharvested or retaining winter stubbles can provide vital feeding opportunities to help seed-eating birds survive the winter.

Which types of seed-rich habitat can you provide?

Unharvested conservation headlands provide the broadest conservation benefit to farmland wildlife. They provide opportunities for broadleaved arable plants, some of which have become extremely scarce. Arable plants add seed food and cover in the understory of the crop, and associated insects boost food for a host of wildlife. This management is most suited to lighter soils which do not have high levels of competitive weeds such as cleavers or barren brome.

Can your crop rotation allow the retention of winter stubbles? It is estimated that around 10% of the farmed area needs to be retained as stubble until at least mid-February to provide sufficient seed food for farmland birds (though this will be highly dependent on the quality of the stubble in providing seed).

Growing specific wild bird seed mixes or leaving cereal headlands unharvested can complement any availability of stubbles. As these options provide a denser source of seed food, only 2% of the farmed area is required to support seed-eating birds through the winter.

Even with winter stubbles and unharvested seed mixtures or cereal headlands, seed food can become depleted by late winter/early spring. Supplementary feeding of seed can help birds survive through the ‘hungry gap’ until the breeding season.

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Which types of seed-rich habitat can you provide?

Where some land is cultivated, such as to grow a winter feed crop for livestock, it may be possible to integrate some of the arable options above to provide seed-rich habitat. Where cereal crops are grown for wholecrop silage, leaving a strip unharvested or retaining winter stubbles can provide vital feeding opportunities.

Brassica and root crops (such as swede, turnips, fodder rape or kale) can provide winter food for birds if some broad-leaved weeds are allowed to grow and produce seed.  With careful management, an understory of broad-leaved weeds can be allowed to grow for wildlife while still achieving a productive crop. Alternatively, leave a sacrificial unsown weedy strip or corner for wildlife.

All farms can also consider cultivating and sowing a small area with wild bird seed mixes.

On the grassland area, intensively managed rye grass (Lolium perenne) leys can be managed to provide a valuable source of late winter seed food. Rye grass seeds are a useful food source, so leaving fields or plots uncut or un-grazed for long enough to seed will help overwintering birds.

Any areas of grassland containing a diversity of plants will provide a valuable source of seed food if they are allowed to flower and seed. Fields closed up for mowing or rotational grazing can allow relatively common plants like dandelions and sorrel the chance to seed and attract bees, other pollinators and feeding birds such as linnets and goldfinches.

Choose a habitat for expert advice on how to achieve the most from it.