Bird populations suffer through the winter months. Tim Weston explains the advantages of supplementary feeding

With a recent announcement that DEFRA and Natural England are going to be looking at paying farmers for the supplementary feeding of birds over the winter, it got me thinking; gamekeepers have been providing free food for wild farmland animals ever since driven shooting began.

Gamekeepers feed either on the ground or by feed hopper (or use a combination of the two). Both are very effective ways of holding game, although traditionally it is thought that feeding on the ground is a better way of keeping the pheasant and partridge where we want them; birds can feed from a hopper then go walkabout.

From both our feed hoppers and the grain scattered on the ground, many other wild animals take advantage of the free and easy food source. Some of these are inevitably unwanted, such as rats and squirrels, but it is great to see small birds, like robins (my favourites), helping themselves.

Winter and early spring feeding is an absolutely vital part of conservation in the modern farming environment. With the change in farming techniques since the end of the last war and the improvements in pesticides and herbicides, the winter food that is available for overwintering birds and game has decreased dramatically.

Quite often, on smaller shoots and those run by small syndicates, once the shooting season is over the feed hoppers are left to empty out and the birds that are left on the ground don’t have easy access to food. GWCT has done much research on supplementary feeding of game birds during the winter and early spring months. It has shown that if the food is withdrawn or let to run down then the birds rapidly lose weight. Coming into the important time of year when the hens will be producing and incubating eggs, this could lead to few wild birds being produced.

There are some other advantages to continuing the feeding throughout the lean times, which is why most of the larger shoots do continue to feed. More research by the GWCT has shown that feeding pheasants wheat in their breeding territories can increase the density of cocks and hens by up to 50%. Economically, this means you can keep birds on your ground and they will be available to you next season; and that can only be a massive benefit to the shoot, especially if budgets are tight. The research also shows that a hen bird that has been fed throughout the breeding season will be less likely to lose weight, and if a nest is destroyed by environmental factors or predation, they are far more likely to re-nest compared with unfed birds. On average 85% more chicks are produced to fledgling when spring feeding is employed.

Your feeding sites might need to be changed from those you use during the shooting season. During the season we are feeding in areas that we want to drive birds from, but in late winter and early spring feeding we supply food to birds that are looking for nesting sites, which might not be at the top of a hill where your maize was.

Pheasants like to nest in scrubby areas. A good clue would be to look for the sites that you lose birds to during the winter. Areas where pheasants seem to congregate can be a good starting point when placing feed hoppers. For partridges, hoppers should be placed near grass margins, hedges or fences. They should also be put out well before the coveys break up, which happens during December. This will give the birds ample time to find a territory of their own.

Given the importance of winter and early spring feeding to future game bird stocks and for the multitude of other wildlife that utilise this free source of food, I think that every shoot should make every effort to feed until at least mid June. I for one feed right through the year and it shows in our wild pheasant and grey partridge brood sizes.

More info on supplementary feeding can be found on The GWCT has an advisory service that can help with all matters of lowland shoot management.