Game and wild-bird cover crops merit just as much attention as any others to get the best from them – and sited and properly grown they can be equally rewarding.

So says Peter Setterfield, agronomist and shooting consultant for Agrogate, part of Agrovista.

He oversees production of game and wildlife crops on 3000ha (7500 acres) in Sussex, mostly downland.

Included is 1456ha (3600 acres) of The Firle Estate near Lewes where he has been The Firle Shoot manager for five years.

The enterprise, based on pheasants and partridges, lies between the two extremes of shooting businesses, namely an out-and-out profit-driven venture and a private amenity one, says Mr Setterfield.

“We have 25 let days, 10 syndicate and four guest days and two gundog trials.”

But whatever the scale and aims, his message on crop positioning and production is the same. “However much it costs, if you do it correctly you’ll see a benefit, and it’s always worth the effort.”

The exercise is all about manipulating the birds’ habits, and both specific game crops and wild bird cover help do this, he explains.

“Siting and size are both really significant. Small areas can be useful to boost existing cover and provide linking corridors. But ideally game covers should be big enough for the birds to want to spend all day there – a home from home as it were.”

Firle moore (l) Setterfield (r) 
Kale provides especially good game cover in its second season, say David Moore (left) and Peter Setterfield.

At Firle, where the relatively sparse woodland is used mainly for releasing, not shooting, 34ha (85 acres) are devoted to game crops.

“The bigger the plots the better,” says head keeper David Moore. “Ours range from 2.5 to 6 acres.”

ELS options and set-aside crops can enhance a shoot, but Mr Setterfield strongly advises against relying on them alone.

“A game cover is a true crop grown for a purpose. Wild bird cover isn’t reliable because of the uncertainty of establishment and restrictions on the species you can use.”

Crop choice

It’s important to distinguish between what is grown for pure cover and what is intended to provide bird food, says Mr Setterfield.

“It’s worth remembering that only rats, rooks and badgers eat maize unless it falls over. So we use late-maturing southern European varieties that preferably don’t form cobs.”

Maize/millet and intermediate height sorghum/millet mixtures are sown in alternate 4m drill widths – in 60cm (24in) and 51cm (20in) rows respectively – the white millet being the feed source.

“It provides a robust wind-proof habitat with plenty of space in the bottom for the birds to move around.”

With the maize sown at a depth of 6.4cm (2.5in), the millet tends to go in a bit too deep, he admits. “But a useful percentage always comes up. The millet with the sorghum grows well from a 1″ sowing depth. The sorghum and maize tend to support each other. Pure maize stands can go down like skittles.”

No game crops should be sown until 25 May and ideally not until June when the soil has warmed for speedy germination and emergence, stresses Mr Setterfield.

Sowing that late makes conserving moisture extra important. So the Firle strategy, carried out by local contractor John Hecks, is to plough, roll to seal and spray off with glyphosate just before drilling directly with a Vaderstad Rapid.

The other true game crop, again grown solely as cover, is kale.

“We choose varieties we know will last two seasons – hybrid Colea and thousand-head sown at 2kg/acre in 20in rows. It’s a fleshy crop giving good warm cover which in its second season provides seeds and is wonderful for attracting all sorts of insects. All birds including game love it in its second year.”

Some keepers top kale in its first spring to get it to thicken. “We don’t.” says Mr Moore. “It’s too risky.”

At Firle the maize/millet/sorghum areas are drilled in the direction the birds will be driven, leading them into kale blocks from whence they are flushed a few at a time.

But to avoid the birds running into a “wall” of kale and taking off prematurely en masse, v-shaped entries encouraging them into the crop are cut by hand.

As with forage and grain maize, weed control is important for good establishment, says Mr Setterfield. So early post-emergence Jester (bromoxynil + prosulfuron) is sprayed.

“A lot of people are suffering with grass weeds that came in with suspect stocks of millet seed, and you can’t use a graminicide on sorghum or millet.

“Where that’s a problem we’re going to grow straight Titus tolerant maize, spraying with Titus (rimsulfuron) at the appropriate time, and then try to ‘stitch in’ the millet.”

Other agronomy tips for good results include not stinting on nitrogen. “The maize and kale crops always get 125kg/ha of N.”

Wild-bird options

The sown wild-bird covers at Firle, some of which qualifies for ELS points, are highly valuable for linking existing game covers, enhancing ELS over-wintered stubbles, and providing feed and shelter from avian predators, explains Mr Setterfield.

“We use winter triticale, sown in 12-15in wide rows and in spring we ‘stitch’ in linseed, fodder rape and hybrid kale rape which is vigorous and winter hardy.”

Whatever the sowings, seed treatments and regular inspections are vital, says Mr Moore. “We check the kale plots at least twice a week early on for flea beetles, caterpillars and other pests.”

“You must be prepared to spray if necessary,” adds Mr Setterfield. “That’s where a dedicated ATV with a sprayer can be really useful.

“And if in doubt be prepared to re-drill. You can sow brassicas and sorghum/millet successfully right up to July if need be.”

Soil is key

The soil ultimately dictates success, but covers often get relegated to poorer land, says Mr Setterfield.

“You must sample and correct any nutrient deficiencies.”

In a new move to improve fertility, some of Firle’s game crop areas for next season are being treated with green waste compost.