Yellow wagtail, Motacilla flava flavissima, adult female. Catching insects (hoverflies etc.) at farmyard midden. Norfolk, England.

Yellow wagtail

The yellow wagtail is a summer visitor, arriving in April and leaving in September to winter in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yellow wagtail in brief

The subspecies found in the UK is virtually endemic to the British Isles. The population has fallen by an estimated 75 per cent between 1970 and 2009.

Research into ways in which farmland management can improve the status of the yellow wagtail is ongoing, but the following management advice should help yellow wagtails on your farm, as well as other farmland wildlife.

Yellow wagtails produce two broods per year where suitable habitat exists. They nest on the ground, usually in large fields, well away from tall boundaries. They also nest in wet grassland and hay meadows.  

Key points

  • Increase the range of crops in your rotation, to boost both feeding and nesting opportunities.
  • Enhance winter cereals on arable farms by including skylark plots.
  • Maintain areas of unimproved grassland or manage grassland with low-inputs to boost insect food.

What this species needs

Nesting habitat

Yellow wagtails need an open sward for nesting. They breed on the fringes of wetlands, wet grassland, salt marshes, hay meadows and in some vegetable crops and a number of arable crops, including cereals, potatoes, peas and field beans. Vegetation must be open enough to give the birds easy access to the ground.

Summer food

Yellow wagtails need a good supply of insects and spiders throughout the summer, particularly flying insects in sparse vegetation and open ground. Grazed pasture is a favourite foraging habitat for them, as are in-field manure heaps, ponds and wet areas. 

Yellow wagtail chicks in nest in potato field
Baby wagtail

How to help

The following guidelines should be targeted within 2km of areas where nesting yellow wagtails still occur. Such management is unlikely to be successful at attracting yellow wagtails if they are not already in the vicinity, although some of these guidelines may benefit other wildlife in these areas.

Creation, restoration or maintenance of wet features such as open wet ditches, ponds and scrapes will boost a number of flying insect groups on which yellow wagtails feed on all types of farmland. For the greatest benefit to yellow wagtails, these wet areas should be open and free from shading by hedges and trees.

On arable land

  • A wide crop diversity will generally provide more nesting and foraging opportunities for yellow wagtails throughout the breeding season. Winter wheat is commonly used throughout the breeding season, but where available, birds will often relocate to peas and potatoes for later broods.
  • Skylark plots within winter cereals can provide foraging habitat in arable areas dominated by autumn-sown crops.
  • Creation of a network of insect-rich habitats around arable farmland will provide plenty of food – agri-environment measures such as flower-rich or cultivated margins, beetle banks and low-input crops are ideal.
  • Try to avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides after 15 March.

On grassland

  • Maintain water levels and extensive grazing to provide some nesting cover on wet grasslands and grazing marsh.
  • Low-input, cattle-grazed pasture is likely to provide good all-round habitat for yellow wagtails.
  • Maintain areas of unimproved grassland with low inputs to boost insect numbers and provide high-quality feeding habitat.
  • Delaying cutting of silage and hay crops used by nesting yellow wagtails until after 15 July will allow most first broods to successfully fledge prior to management.
Yellow wagtail chicks in nest in potato field