Seed-eating farmland birds can often struggle to find sufficient seed during winter and early spring.
This period is often referred to as the ‘hungry gap,’ when seed is in short supply and birds are beginning to enter the breeding season.
Spreading seed or grain regularly throughout winter and early spring can provide an essential source of food for seed-eating farmland birds, once the naturally-available food has run out.
Bird species such as yellowhammers and tree sparrows need seed food throughout the year to survive.
By spreading seed regularly throughout winter and early spring, populations of declining farmland birds can be supported once the natural sources of seeds and grains have been used up. This can be particularly valuable where over-winter stubbles cannot be left uncultivated and other seed-rich options such as wild bird seed mixes cannot be established.
Ideal supplementary feeding areas should be near to natural resources, such as over-winter stubbles or wild bird seed mixes where they exist. As feeding stations need to be visited frequently, it might be best to use a part of the farm that is passed through regularly during normal work.
It is best to start providing seed from October, so that birds become aware of the reliable source of food, with feeding continuing until at least the end of March to provide food throughout the hungry gap.
A wide range of seed can be used, including cereals, grains such as millet, oilseeds, tailings (the small seeds removed from harvested crops) and other seeds.
Seed can be provided in hoppers or by spreading. Consider spreading seed in non-cropped areas, on firm dry surfaces such as farm tracks, or areas of short grassland to prevent introducing weeds. Free-draining surfaces will also prevent the seed from rotting or germinating. Rotating the feeding area around a field or moving along a track will help to reduce the risks of birds spreading disease to each other, or of rodents using a site.
The amount of seed needed for feeding will vary throughout winter, but will likely be between 10 and 25kg per week, with half a tonne sufficient for the winter. Try to leave no longer than a week between feeding. If you find that there is still food leftover from the last feed, consider reducing the amount used slightly rather than increasing the time between feeds.
Some winter stubbles may be of lower value for birds, particularly where the preceding crop was devoid of broad-leaved weeds and where little grain was spilt during harvest. These areas are quickly depleted of seed by foraging birds. Similarly wild bird seed mixtures can vary in terms of the abundance of seeds produced and can be of only limited value by late winter. In both cases, tailings can be spread over the crop to top up the seed available to farmland birds.
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