Yellowhammer perched on a yellow flower calling

Yellowhammer

The yellowhammer is widely distributed on all farmland types. Densities are higher in lowland areas.

Yellowhammers in brief

The UK yellowhammer population fell by 54 per cent between 1970 and 1998*. The main factor is low overwinter survival, probably because fewer seed food sources are available to them on farmland. 

*Data source: British Trust for Ornithology

Key points

  • Maintain short, thick hedges and ditches with wide margins for nesting.
  • Flower-rich margins are better for insects than grass margins.
  • Do not trim hedgerows before September, as the late nests of yellowhammers are the most important for overall productivity.
  • Ensure there is at least one good seed food source throughout the winter.

What this species needs

Thick hedges with ditches or wide margins for nesting 

Yellowhammers nest on or close to the ground in ditch vegetation or at the base of short, thick hedgerows and scrub. They are most commonly found in hedgerows which have a wide margin or ditch. They often breed until the end of August, so cutting hedges before the end of August can destroy nests. 

Lots of seeds throughout the year 

Adults feed mainly on seeds throughout the year, especially cereal grain. They seek places where they can find lots of seed food, such as winter stubbles, root crops, wild bird cover, weeds in the crop margin, areas where grain is spilt or where cereals are fed to cattle. Yellowhammers rarely use improved pastures and grass leys, as these do not provide any seed food.

Insects and spiders in the spring and summer 

Yellowhammer chicks depend largely on insects for food. Adults also feed on insects in the breeding season. Wide margins around arable fields provide many insects as well as nesting habitat. Flower-rich margins provide a greater diversity and abundance of insects for yellowhammers and other farmland birds.  

Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, adult perched on bramble stalk facing camera. Glasgow

How to help

On arable land

  • Provide important winter feeding habitat by spraying and cultivating stubbles as late as possible. Where overwinter stubbles are not a viable option, create seed-rich wild bird cover crops (or wild bird seed mixtures). An annual crop established each spring with a high proportion of spring cereals (wheat, barley and/or triticale) in the seed mix will be best for yellowhammers and other buntings. Linseed or a brassica, such as rape or mustard, will broaden the benefits for finches and other seed-eating birds.
  • Create grass margins around arable fields to increase food and nesting habitat for yellowhammers. If you can maintain flower-rich margins, then this will be better for wildlife. Yellowhammers are more likely to use margins which have a short, thick hedge and an adjacent ditch.
  • Adopt conservation headlands to boost insect abundance in the crop margin. Avoid spraying the outer six metres of cereal fields with insecticides or herbicides targeted at broad-leaved weeds. This enables beneficial insects and chick food for yellowhammers to survive.  

On grassland

  • Introduce arable fodder crops or small plots of wild bird cover to provide a seed-rich habitat in pastoral areas. Maize is not of value to yellowhammers unless it is undersown with a seed-bearing crop. 
  • Fence off margins of up to six metres around improved grassland and leave these unfertilised, uncut and ungrazed. Graze or cut in September every two to three years. Avoid cutting all margins in the same year. Select margins which have short thick hedges and ditches. 

Hedgerow management

  • Provide hedgerows of differing sizes around the farm. Yellowhammers favour hedgerows less than two metres tall. 
  • All hedge, ditch and field margin management should be avoided between 1 March and 31 August because of nesting birds. Yellowhammers nest well into August, and later nests tend to be the most successful, so delaying cutting until at least 1 September is particularly important for them.
  • Trim hedgerows only once every two to three years. Avoid trimming all hedges in the same year. 
  • Maintain a thick base to hedgerows. Management such as laying or coppicing can restore a dense structure at the base of a hedge. 
  • Avoid laying or coppicing all hedges in the same year. Undertake management on a long rotation.
Yellowhammer adult male feeding on grain at Hope Farm