Thursday, 7 June 2007

Grow your own free bird table this summer

Want to grow your own bird food instead of buying it? The Game Conservancy Trust is giving away free packets of seeds this summer in what it describes as a major effort to help restore nationally declining farmland bird populations.

Popular songbirds such as Song Thrush, Yellowhammer, Blackbird, Tree Sparrow and Reed Bunting are thought to have declined on British farmland because of reduced availability of seed food in efficient modern farming systems. However, an extensive national study by The Game Conservancy Trust has revealed that game crops, such as kale and quinoa, grown for the benefit of pheasants and partridges, are one of the best farmland habitats for a wide range of other bird species too.

The research showed that kale and quinoa were top of the crops for farmland birds, but add a dash of cereal such as triticale and you have the most perfect brunch for most farmland birds. This wild bird seed mixture also provides longevity. After the quinoa and cereal die back at the end of the first year, the kale carries on to provide excellent nesting and feeding habitat through the second breeding season. Flowering kale also attracts insects, which the birds use in turn to feed their young.

To fully appreciate the value of these crops for birds, The Game Conservancy Trust is giving away free packets of quinoa seeds, which have been generously sponsored by Belmont Seeds from Lincolnshire. Not only is quinoa a popular health food for people, the Trust's research shows that it is a particularly nutritious crop for birds too. Plant these free seeds this month and they will grow into a stunning-looking autumn crop that will provide a nourishing feast for a host of farmland birds during the leanest times of winter.

In addition, the research highlighted that location is another important factor that influenced birds' food choice. Crops close to hedges or other cover give added protection from predators and are therefore generally more favoured than crops out in the open.

Dr Chris Stoate, The Game Conservancy Trust's farmland ecologist, carried out this important study. He explained: "The main focus of attention has been on identifying the main crops that will benefit a wide range of farmland birds. Our study suggests that if managed and sited correctly, a combination of just two or three crop species can provide a fantastic winter food source for many nationally declining farmland bird species. Interestingly, in one study we found up to 100 times as many birds per hectare in game crops than in commercial crops, including unmanaged set-aside and cereal stubbles."

To obtain a packet of free quinoa seeds (while stocks last), please send an SAE to The Game Conservancy Trust, Burgate Manor, Fordingbridge, Hampshire SP6 1EF.