Top 10 game crops
Tim Furbank of Oakbank Game & Conservation considers the merits of ten of the best game cover crops.
When the editor asked me to write an article on the top 10 game crops in the UK, my immediate reaction was ‘how do I keep it down to 10?' This clearly can't be an exhaustive list and one person's favourite game cover crop may be dismissed by someone else.
So, suffice to say the following list is based on personal experience of working with shoots across the UK. As an example, artichokes are included in the list as they are still a very popular crop, but personally, I don't particularly like them – my reasons are revealed below – and crops such as quinoa and sunflowers don't have their own position in the Top 10 but do get a mention within the game mixes section.
I should also point out that this Top 10 is in no particular order – i.e. No. 1 is not necessarily the best and No. 10 isn't an also ran.
Maize is still one of the most popular crops for game cover as it provides a good canopy and is relatively easy to grow. Gamebirds enjoy the security that the canopy provides and, providing it is sown correctly, it affords easy access and movement underneath. And of course the cobs provide a terrific food source for pheasants and partridges. On the downside, that food source is also very attractive to rats and badgers and is of limited use to other farmland birds. Late maturing maize varieties (sold as ‘cobless' maize) get around the vermin problem but if you don't want the cobs then why not plant sorghum?
Often used in stewardship mixes, triticale is a low-input cereal that will grow on poor soils and in difficult locations. The main advantages of triticale above wheat or barley are that it doesn't need as much nitrogen to produce a decent crop, it grows on thinner soils, it stands up very well in the winter and it holds onto its seeds better, delivering food for a longer period through the winter.
Kale used to be the most commonly grown game cover crop in the UK, and rightly so. A good crop of kale is warm and dry in the winter (you only get wet when you walk through it because all the water runs off the leaves – birds moving about underneath don't disturb the leaves so stay dry), and in its second year it is a fabulous source of insects in the summer, and seed in the winter for songbirds. However, as the area of oilseed rape across the UK increased, the numbers of pest species that targeted brassicas increased to the extent that it became quite tricky to grow kale. But if you are prepared to be patient with your seedbed and be vigilant for the first month or so that the crop is through the ground, a good crop of kale will rarely let you down, both as a drive and a conservation crop.
Brought into the UK as a forage crop in the early part of this century, it was soon noticeable that where pasture containing chicory was left ungrazed, the chicory bolted and went to seed turning into a wiry and very robust plant. Even better, the following spring it would start to sprout again. And so a ‘new' perennial game cover was born. Chicory is now used as a component in many game mixes as it is easy to grow and pretty much guarantees a second year crop. On wild game estates it has proved invaluable as strips of chicory not only provide good overhead protection from raptors in the winter, but also do the same in the summer, delivering good brood-rearing habitat.
There are two sub-species of canary grass, p.aquatica (canary grass) and p.arundinacea (reed canary grass). Each has its merits but my personal preference is for the native reed canary grass. Once established, a well-managed crop of canary grass will last for years, providing a warm windbreak, good flushing cover and a potential nest site for wild game. Both the p.aquatica and the p.arundinacea must be established in wide rows, and by wide I mean a minimum of 60cm, preferably nearer 75cm, if they are to provide long-term cover. Drill too close and the crop becomes impenetrable after a year or two. Canary grass must then be managed to maintain the rows either by spraying or cultivating between rows.
Although expensive to establish, miscanthus has transformed the fortunes of many shoots that rely on cover crops to produce their best quality birds. Once established, a crop of miscanthus is a warm, dry environment, protecting birds from the weather and the leaf litter provides a fabulous carpet on which to forage. Having said that, you mustn't be tempted to plant large blocks of it or I guarantee you will not be able to drive the birds where you want them (and the beaters won't thank you either!). Instead, use 6 – 12m-wide strips alternating with a food crop, such as maize or triticale, to give birds a cover in which they are happy to stay all day. Exposed cover crops, which usually have to be the first drive of the day and, come December and January are over in one big flush, are now producing a steady stream of birds whatever time of day and whatever the weather, thanks to miscanthus. And it removes the worry of having to establish a cover crop every year!
Fast growing brassicas such as utopia have been the saviour of many shoots over the past few years. But these crops should not just be looked upon as ‘rescue' crops. In many cases if you plan to use later sown brassicas as part of your game cover portfolio you will have better success. Forage rape, mustard, fodder radish, stubble turnips and utopia are all fast growing crops and when sown at the right time can deliver excellent holding and driving cover.
If I had a pound for every time I've heard a keeper say “...and I don't want any of that wild bird mix rubbish”, I would be a rich man! Once I have explained that not all seed mixes are the same, and having wall-to-wall maize isn't very exciting for game and delivers little for conservation, we can usually start to discuss their requirements. Once we know what they want – i.e. food, cover or both – we can design a crop to suit the ground.
Weed control in wild bird mixes is often an issue so to get around this we can design a crop that can either be sprayed (cereals, sorghum, millets and linseed can be sprayed for broadleaf weeds, whilst brassicas, buckwheat, camelina and quinoa can be sprayed for grassweeds), sown later to ensure a stale seedbed (fodder radish, mustard, buckwheat, camelina and kale), or rotated around the field so weeds aren't an issue.
Wild bird mixes containing kale can be left a second year and deliver great brood-rearing crops in the second summer. So a good wild bird seed mix delivers year-round habitat, winter and summer food, potentially earns the farm some money and ticks a lot of conservation boxes.
A popular perennial crop, particularly useful on poor ground that is not suitable for annual cultivation. I am not a great fan as I have spent many an unhappy hour trying to beat through a crop of artichokes in November and then, in December and January, when they are most needed they have laid down as flat as a board. They don't provide any winter food for birds, little in the way of insects in the spring and summer and they do need managing. That said, if they are sown correctly, in potato ridges, are thinned and re-ridged every few years, then they can be a very useful area to a shoot.
Dwarf grain sorghum (or milo as it is often called) is a very popular game crop in the south of the UK where the climate is more favourable for this heat-loving species. Often sown alongside or underneath maize as a windbreak and to try and ‘warm up' the bottom of a maize crop in the winter, milo is in fact an excellent crop in its own right and stands extremely well in the worst of the winter conditions. It doesn't provide any food but is a very good partner crop to millet which feeds game and songbirds alike. Dwarf sorghum is now recognised as an important component of wild bird seed mixes as it provides structure for the seed-bearing crops.
Giant sorghum is decreasing in popularity as it can't be used in Environmental Stewardship mixes and people are finding the dwarf varieties deliver better cover. Giant sorghum can be useful for hiding release pens and is quite useful if it is mixed with dwarf sorghum as it brings additional height and canopy without the risk of it being flattened in a storm.