Weedy stubble left as food source for farmland birds

Over-wintered stubbles

If you have spring crops in your rotation, then over-wintered stubbles may be the easiest way for you to provide seed food for birds through the winter.

Why leave over-wintered stubbles?

Research has shown that birds such as skylarks and yellowhammers have declined most seriously in landscapes where there are no over-wintered stubbles. Stubbles also benefit brown hares and rare arable plants.

It is estimated that skylarks would not decline at all if over-wintered stubbles were left on 20 per cent of the area. Stubbles managed under the Countryside Stewardship with no pre-harvest glyphosate, are better for birds. The area needed is probably less if Countryside Stewardship stubbles are used.

The economic analysis below shows you can make a profit from switching to a spring crop using Countryside Stewardship payments for over-wintered stubbles, as well as spreading your workload and getting better spring weed control.

Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus), adult male feeding in stubble left over winter as a food source. Labrador Bay RSPB reserve, Devon, England.

What you can do

Leave cereal stubbles uncultivated and unsprayed for as long as possible to provide seed food for birds.

Under the Countryside Stewardship, the over-wintered stubble option requires no use of pre-harvest glyphosate and retaining the stubble without cultivations, sprays or fertilisers until 15 February.

Seed food available for birds peaks at the time of crop harvest, but becomes increasingly sparse from then until new seed sources become available in the spring. The later you can leave stubbles, the better. You can also supplement stubbles with wild bird seed mixtures.

Many seed-eating birds forage more successfully in short stubbles, where they can see approaching danger and fly off. However, gamebirds prefer to forage in tall stubbles which also act as cover for them through the winter. 

Stubble left over winter as a food source, for Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus). Labrador Bay RSPB reserve, Devon

Case study

Chris Dowse, Hall Farm, Lincolnshire

"Stubbles are retained to provide land to support gamebirds and stand guns on shoot days and it fits in well with our farming system on the lighter land. These options are not suitable on the heavier soils on the Humber Bank due to the heavier weed burden here.

"The weeds are not considered to be an agronomic problem as they are easily controlled in the following crop.

"A variable stubble height is deliberately created in the fields by adjusting the cutter on the combine as the taller stubble provides some cover for gamebirds."

Common or Eurasian crane Grus grus, taking off from maize stubble field near Baltic Sea shore, during autumn migration period, Germany