Seeded rye grass
Most farmland bird species in lowland Britain feed on seeds during the winter, however many have suffered major declines as the mixed farming practices which once provided winter seed food have disappeared.
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 can be a useful food source, however the common practice of cutting rye grass fields multiple times a year for silage removes seed heads before they can ripen. Leaving fields or plots uncut, or lightly grazed, can provide valuable over-winter food for birds and may also provide suitable habitat away from damaging harvesting machinery for other farmland wildlife, including invertebrates and small mammals.
In regions specialised in livestock production, agriculturally productive rye grass swards are now the main crop. Under normal agricultural management, these swards provide very little for wintering birds to eat. However this can be changed by modifying management so that some of the ryegrass is allowed to set seed in summer. Rye grass seeds are large, are held on the plant late into the winter and are easily collected by birds. Fallen seed can also provide a food source for some insects.
Seeded rye grass is an easy way for grassland dominated farms to provide winter seed food where other arable crops such as cereal stubbles or wild bird seed mixes are not practical. Seed-eating birds such as yellowhammers and reed buntings will be attracted to seeded rye grass, and other birds such as corn buntings, skylarks, and gamebirds will also benefit. Seeded rye grass plots can continue to provide seed food into March when other sources of seed food may have run out.
This type of management should be targeted at grasslands with a high (>50%) perennial, Italian or hybrid rye grass content. It fits well into the farming system as a rotational management that moves around the farm, for example on a grass ley due to be cultivated in the spring for sowing a spring crop such as maize or reseeding a grass ley. It is important that the sward is still dominated by productive rye grasses, so younger grass leys cut for silage are particularly beneficial.
Seeded rye grass can be created on a whole or part-field (by leaving plots or strips uncut or ungrazed). As seed densities are generally lower on the edges of fields, any strips created on the field edge should be at least 10m wide and situated away from busy roads which may disturb birds. Seeded rye grass strips may attract different bird species depending on where they are located, for example buntings prefer plots near hedges, but open-country birds like skylarks prefer plots away from hedges and trees.
Managing the grass to produce abundant seed
To ensure the rye grass sward can produce a large seed crop that will attract birds, cease cutting or grazing from mid-summer. The exact timing will depend on which rye grass species dominates the sward, and on where you are located in the UK.
As a guide based on grass growth in central England:
For perennial rye grass swards cutting/grazing needs to cease by the 3rd week of May in order to produce adequate seed. This will mean only one silage crop can be taken.
For Italian and hybrid rye grass cutting/grazing needs to cease by the end of June, so potentially two silage crops can be taken.
In pastures, rather than removing grazing from the whole field it is possible to temporary fence off plots while continuing to graze the remainder of the field.
Once cutting or grazing has been ceased for the year and the rye grass has gone to seed, it is important to avoid disturbing the vegetation (by moving animals or machinery through the field or plot for example), as this will dislodge seeds which will then become less accessible to foraging birds and may rot on the ground. Birds will continue to use seeded rye grass into March and April.
Restoring the area to productive farming
A good option is to cultivate in the spring to re-seed a new grassland ley or sow a spring crop. If the existing rye grass sward is to be maintained for future years, the thatch of vegetation remaining at the end of the winter will need to be removed. This is best done by mowing and clearing cuttings as early as soil conditions allow in March. Leaving cuttings behind or later mowing will tend to increase the likelihood of sward damage. Heavy spring grazing or other mechanical methods may also be effective ways of restoring the sward. Dislodged rye grass seed may germinate in the spring and regenerate a productive rye grass dominated sward.
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