Development of an agri-environment scheme option: seed-bearing crops for farmland birds


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Winter mortality, resulting from reduced food supply during a period of agricultural intensification, is thought to have driven population declines for some farmland bird species. Planting of game crops has increased over this period in order to provide food and cover for gamebirds. We investigate the potential of this managed habitat for farmland songbird conservation, using intensive single-site studies, and an extensive national survey. Game crops were used more than other farmland habitats by a wide range of bird species. Kale and quinoa were used by many species, whereas maize was used by very few. Cereals such as triticale and millet were used by many species, including several not associated with brassicas such as kale. Crop species differed in the rate of seed shedding, and therefore in the amount of seed food that they provided through the winter. Crop location influenced use by some bird species, with crops close to hedges or other cover generally being favoured. Use of nitrogen fertilizer influenced seed yield, and therefore crop value as a source of food for birds. Our results suggest that, if managed and sited correctly, a combination of two or three crop species can provide a valuable winter food resource for many nationally declining farmland bird species, but further attention needs to be given to their agronomy. This form of management is now incorporated as an option within agri-environment schemes in England, Scotland and Wales. It enables farmers to apply existing skills to conservation and is compatible with their cultural values.