December has arrived, and forecasts are predicting that temperatures will plummet in the coming weeks, with snow on the cards. Therefore, it is vital for shoots, landowners and conservationists to think about the survival of our farmland birds during ‘The Hungry Gap’.
But what is ‘The Hungry Gap’? Is it possible to assist our songbirds and farmland birds this year even if nothing has been put in the ground? And, why is it important that we start thinking about next year’s hungry gap already?
What is ‘The Hungry Gap’?
The hungry gap refers to the time of the year when the winter is at its harshest and natural food sources – such as seeds, berries, and insects – are scarce or unavailable to farmland and game birds. Typically, it lasts from December until the middle of March.
What Causes ‘The Hungry Gap’?
The two main causes of hungry gap are the weather and modern agricultural practices.
With regards to the weather, this is fairly self-explanatory. Hard, cold snaps throughout these non- growing months make finding any sort of sustenance difficult. We are all familiar with the bare trees, hedgerows and bushes during this time.
Modern agricultural practise, with its machine-like efficiency since the end of WWII, has led to an increase in the severity of the hungry gap for several reasons –
- More winter cropping has replaced spring cropping, resulting in no stubbles and less weeds.
- There is considerably less grain waste due to more efficient combines. This results in less grain left behind in the field.
- Better grain storage facilities prevent wildlife from helping itself in the yards.
- More effective herbicides leave less weed species to seed.
- More hedgerow cutting – hedgerows need second year growth to produce fruit and berries.
It isn’t just agriculture that has caused reductions in habitat. Woodlands cut down for timber, and more recently housing and industry have all encroached both brown and green fields.
How to Help?
The two main options recommended are to feed through the hungry gap – also known as supplementary feeding – and to plant wild bird mixes that provide feed through the hungry gap.
If you are looking to enhance the hungry gap this coming winter but have not planted anything, then supplementary feeding can be extremely beneficial to farmland birds, game birds and other wildlife. There are a number of mixes available – Our Hold ‘Em Hard Mix is suitable for AB12 – which include specific feeding mixes and holding mixes. If nothing else, wheat and cut maize can do an excellent job due to its high protein and starch levels.
Unlike supplementary feeding, planting wild bird mixes requires forward thinking and planning, so that the crop is ready and providing seed when the hungry gap arrives.
Increased areas of wild bird mixtures are ideal, especially if spread across land and linked up via ‘corridors’. Bigger plots are also better than smaller plots for sustained usage and cover from the kind of weather conditions that can be expected in winter.
If thinking ahead and looking to plant stewardship and wild bird mixtures, there are a number of options. The ideal scenario is to plant a variety of species and mixtures that will establish at different times – staggering food production throughout the hungry gap.
Though much of this depends on location and weed burden, an ideal way to work it would be to have two-hectare blocks which consist of several mixtures. The benefits here are that the mixtures will allow for different planting times, spreading the workload and providing staggered ripening times. This example also offers weed control to help make the plots more productive. Although weed seeds can provide feed, ultimately, if left unmanaged they will choke out the crop.
Understandably, some may not have the luxury of space so the previous example may be difficult to turn into reality. The most important aspect of all of this is to plan ahead. For example, Kale won’t produce any seed until the second year – this must be considered when planting Kale.
A final important piece of advice is to use land sensibly. If there is difficult land that cannot be farmed – due to poor access for example – then rather than leaving it bare, this is a perfect area to set up wild bird mixtures on.
Another thought that is worth taking into consideration is the changes made to stewardship programmes by the New Agriculture Bill. Farmers and landowners are set to receive more money from the government as reward for doing more environmental work – such as countryside stewardship code AB12 – supplementary winter feeding for farmland birds.