Late spring is the time to plant non-cash crops as habitat for wildlife and gamebirds in the season to come. The area sown to cover crops has grown significantly over the last ten to fifteen years, partly driven by the grants available through Environmental and Countryside Stewardship. There is no doubt that Government policy for the countryside is based more on habitat creation and environmental enhancement than on food production. But there has also been growing concern about degradation of soils and the impact of climate change.
There are several reasons why farmers plant cover crops. There is the financial incentive with the grant for winter bird mix at £640 per hectare. Most farms have poor patches, on the north side of a wood for example, or wet and boggy areas, where growing a cover crop is likely to be more profitable than trying to grow a cash crop. Under Cross Compliance rules, if there are areas of the farm that suffer from surface run-off and soil erosion, part of the Basic Payment may be withheld so, again, a cover crop that minimises the problem is likely to pay dividends. In any case, for as long as ‘greening measures’ continue, most farmers have to devote at least 5% of their arable land to nature conservation as ‘Ecological Focus Areas’.
The wet autumn and winter this year meant that large areas of land were not sown to winter cereals as planned and some that were planted failed, especially oilseed rape. It was late March before many soils dried out enough to be tilled, leaving farmers with a difficult choice of what to do. In the event, it appears that most have sown a cash crop, mostly spring barley, despite the shorter growing season. The yield of ‘cuckoo barley’ planted after the middle of March is likely to be reduced unless there are exceptional growing conditions for the rest of the season.
In any case, many of these soils are likely to have poor structure and fertility after being waterlogged for much of the previous six months. It might be better to write off this season and use the summer to repair the damage and prepare the soil for an autumn crop. A cover crop can be an excellent tool in this process. Fodder radish, for example, has a strong deep tap root that can penetrate compacted soil and help improve structure. Phacelia has fibrous roots that benefit the top few inches of soil as well as being good for pollinators, as are vetches that have the added advantage of fixing nitrogen. Planting such a mixture now will improve the soil over the summer and build fertility.
It is unclear how the coming shooting season will unfold as I reported in my last column. Bright Seeds is a seed merchant that specialises in cover crops and maize, one of the foremost in the country. To find out their experience in this difficult season, I spoke to Arthur Barraclough. He suggested that 5% to 10% of shoots will simply give this year a miss whilst others are scaling back their operations. This is causing serious problems for game farms as orders for poults are severely reduced but most shoots are still planning to plants their cover crops and Arthur told me that the seed orders are coming in thick and fast.
Some shoots stick with maize for their pheasant and partridge covers. It is thought to be the most reliable but the seed is too large to feed many farmland birds which is why it does not qualify for Stewardship grants. It also attracts pests such as rats and badgers which is why some shoots are cutting back in favour of a winter bird mix. Bright Seeds’ most popular mix if Pheasant and Finch, a mix of millet, sorghum, triticale, linseed, kale and quinoa, which can last for two years and provides huge amounts of feed for farmland birds. It can also be augmented with corn cockle, crimson clover and vetch to provide some flowering species that produce nectar for insects and pollinators.
There are other pollen and nectar mixtures that attract a grant of £511 per hectare, ideal for promoting the insects and pollinators that are in decline. These mixes provide no winter food or cover for gamebirds and are thus not suitable for shooting covers but, if they can increase insect numbers, they are invaluable in providing food for wild bird chicks in early summer. It is important that covers are carefully sited to allow corridors and connectivity. For example a beetle bank might have a winter bird mix on one side and a nectar flower mix on the other. Collaboration amongst neighbours such as farmer clusters is particularly effective.
Maize has been planted in the past week or two but that is mainly for silage to provide winter fodder for cattle, particularly dairies. Soils have dried out remarkably quickly after the winter rains and there was a danger of insufficient moisture for crops to germinate and establish but the significant rainfall of the weekend before last was of huge benefit.
There is little detail of the options and grants we might expect in the Environmental Land Management Scheme when it is rolled out across the country in 2004, but we must hope that there is adequate funding to incentivise the growing of cover crops. We know that, where covers crops are well sited and joined up, the decline in wildlife, especially farmland birds, can be reversed. It is also critical that the degradation of soils is reversed with improved structure and fertility. Here too, cover crops have a vital role to play.