Henry Johnston with wild bird cover crop at Armagh, Northern Ireland

Wild bird seed mixtures

Wild bird seed mixtures provide a vital food supply for seed-eating birds throughout the winter.

About wild bird seed mixtures

Wild bird seed mixtures are particularly important in areas where traditional food sources, such as weedy stubble and cereals fed to outdoor stock, are no longer available.

Wild bird cover can be funded by agri-environment schemes. You should check with your agriculture department to ensure your management meets the relevant requirements.

Key points

  • An annual cereal-based mix will provide the most reliable food source for yellowhammers and corn buntings. Gamebirds make more use of kale-based biennial mixtures. A mix including a cereal and an oil-rich crop (eg kale, linseed or quinoa) will benefit the widest range of species.
  • Check that your management complies with the current scheme guidelines for crops managed under an agri-environment scheme.
Winterbourne Downs RSPB reserve, wild Bird Seed Mix Margin

Benefits to wildlife

Seed-bearing crops provide food for birds throughout the winter 

The use of a mix of seed crops will lead to the creation of an attractive feeding habitat for a wide range of seed-eating birds.

A two-year crop may also provide seed throughout the spring of the second year and this may help birds to attain breeding condition.

Species that will benefit include grey partridge, turtle dove, song thrush, tree sparrow, linnet, yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting.

Flowering plants attract nectar-and pollen-feeding insects 

Any flowering crops, especially legumes or phacelia, will encourage nectar- and pollen-feeding insects. Many of these insects will then lay eggs in the vicinity and thus increase the numbers of insect larvae available to birds as food. Hoverflies are especially attracted to these strips and will lay eggs wherever there is an abundance of aphids for their larvae to feed on, thus helping to reduce numbers of these pests in adjacent crops.

Annual cereal-based mixtures provide good brood-rearing cover for grey partridges 

A mix with a high proportion of cereals established in the spring or autumn will create an open, invertebrate rich crop that is an ideal foraging environment for grey partridge chicks.

You should aim to create a 20-metre strip alongside a tussocky grass margin where partridges are likely to nest. 

The seed rate should be low to create an open habitat that gives birds access to the ground and low-growing weeds, for example a mix of 60 kilograms cereal and 6 kilograms mustard or rape per hectare.

How to prepare mixture

  • Site the plots next to thick hedgerows for safe cover.   
  • The seedbed should be prepared and the crop drilled as for a commercial arable crop.   
  • The ideal time to establish a mix is in April or May. If spring sowing is not possible, then crops can be established in the autumn, but then only provide seed food in alternate years (for annual mixes) or in two out of three years (for biennial mixes).
  • A cereal component is important for yellowhammer and corn bunting. It is also taken by gamebirds and sparrow, An oil-rich crop (eg kale, linseed or quinoa) is important for finches. Crops such as mustard, forage rape and millet can also be included.
  • At the end of its final winter, destroy the cover in late March or early April and re-establish the mix as soon as possible.  
  • Sowing a cereal mix and broadcasting the other crops before rolling should achieve good establishment.
  • Nitrogen fertiliser may be required for successful establishment and to boost the seed yield of the crop - the amount should be determined by the needs of the component crops. 
  • You may need to relocate plots if disease levels (eg of brassica club root) prevent establishment.  
  • As with all crops, wild bird cover is susceptible to competition from weeds and attack by pests and diseases during establishment. Insects and weed seeds are important components of the diet of farmland birds, so the use of insecticides and herbicides should be kept to a minimum.
  • Any use of insecticides and most herbicides will require a derogation for plots grown as part of agri-environment scheme funding.
Wild bird seed mixtures PDF screenshot

Download

Wild bird seed mixtures provide vital food for seed-eating birds throughout winter. PDF, 174Kb.

Wild bird seed mixtures advisory sheet (England)

How to manage wild bird cover. PDF, 220Kb.

Wild bird cover advisory sheet (Northern Ireland)

How to create and manage wildlife cover crops. PDF, 278Kb.

Wildlife cover crops (or wild bird cover) advisory sheet (Wales)

How to create and manage wildlife cover crops. PDF, 1.0Mb.

Wild bird cover advisory sheet (Scotland)

Annual or biennial crops?

Crops can be replaced annually or every two years - biennial mixes including a biennial crop such as kale, provide better cover for gamebirds, whereas annual, cereal-based mixtures provide continuous food for buntings.

A mix of crop types will provide the maximum benefits. If biennial crops are used, establishing blocks in alternate years will ensure there will be a mix of seeds available every winter.

Wild Bird Seed Mix Margin at Manor Farm, Winterbourne Downs RSPB reserve.