Seed-rich habitats

Seed-rich habitats

Traditional agriculture provided seed-rich habitats throughout the year that wildlife evolved to exploit. Notably, many birds became farmland specialists, relying on these habitats for food, especially through the winter.

Rotations, which were dominated by spring-sown cropping, ensured that fallows and stubbles were available for wildlife to exploit, crops were weedier and more mixed farming resulted in spilt grain from feeding livestock. It is possible to maintain these benefits alongside the efficiency of modern farming through targeted effort to support wildlife dependent on seed-rich habitats, particularly declining seed-eating birds such as tree sparrows, yellowhammers, grey partridges and corn buntings.

arable

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 throughout the winter and its associated hunger gap.

Which types of seed-rich habitat to 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 this ‘hungry gap’ until the breeding season.

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

livestock

On mixed farms, leaving areas unharvested or retaining winter stubbles can provide vital feeding opportunities to help seed-eating birds survive throughout the winter and its associated hunger gap. On livestock farms whole crop silage, brassica root crops and seeded rye grass can all be managed to provide winter food for seed-eating birds. All farms can also consider sowing small areas with wild bird seed mixes.

Which types of seed-rich habitat to provide?

Cereal-based whole crop silage can provide benefits to wildlife, particularly where winter stubbles can be left to provide a seed source for birds such as yellowhammers and skylarks, and spring tillage offers nesting habitat for lapwings.

Areas of uncut rye grass in silage fields, or ungrazed or lightly grazed rye grass pastures can provide valuable winter food for seed-eating birds. Rye grass (Lolium perenne) seeds are a useful food source, so leaving fields or plots uncut, or lightly grazed can provide overwintering food for birds and may also provide suitable habitat away from damaging harvesting machinery for other farmland wildlife.

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 allowing a productive crop to develop.

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