Natural England - Farmers encouraged to feed the birds this winter

Farmers encouraged to feed the birds this winter

6 December 2012

It should be a happier New Year for some of England’s favourite farmland birds, as land managers across the country gear up to give their local birds a vital lifeline with support from Defra’s Environmental Stewardship Scheme.

From 1 January 2013, five new wildlife-friendly Environmental Stewardship (ES) options will be available to farmers, including a new incentive to put out supplementary food for seed-eating birds - such as finches, buntings and sparrows - to help them survive over the winter.  By adopting the new options in the New Year, England’s farmers will be helping wild birds to survive the so-called ‘hungry gap’; the period between mid-winter and spring when naturally available seed food can be in short supply in the countryside.

Natural England is encouraging new and current ES agreement holders to incorporate the new bird feeding option into their ELS and HLS agreements from 1 January 2013, so that birds can reap the maximum benefit this winter.  With a shortage of berries, nuts and seeds already reported from many parts of the country, providing supplementary feeding could make the difference for many birds this winter.

Farmers wishing to include the new options in their agreements from the start of the new year should submit their amendment or application to Natural England by 15 December at the latest, or adopt a voluntary approach to adopting the option for this January, where it`s not practical to amend existing agreements.

Mike Green, Natural England’s Arable Specialist, who has been involved in designing the new option explained:  “Research shows that providing a good supply of cereal, oilseed and specialised grains from mid-winter to early spring can help birds, such as yellowhammers and tree sparrows, survive the winter and enter the spring in a healthier condition.  We are working to provide better quality food sources over a longer period of time and on bigger plots, but in the short-term feeding specialised grain on farm tracks during these critical months can really make a difference.”

Supplementary feeding in winter for farmland birds (options EF23/OF23/HF24) involves farmers spreading grain close to or on existing areas of overwintered stubbles and wild bird seed mix.  Feed hoppers can also be used to support ground feeding.

Mr Yurek Wronski of Slade Farm near Cheltenham, is looking forward to adding the option to his agreement.  He said: “We welcome the introduction of the supplementary feeding option as part of our ELS/HLS agreement and it will be interesting to see the results.  We are planning to set up a simple and straightforward weekly feeding rota using a quad bike and spreader.  This is a direct and practical approach to providing an essential food source for farmland birds during the worst of the winter.”

Evidence to support the new option has come from research carried out on the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project Farm in Leicestershire.  Dr Alastair Leake, Allerton Project Director, explained: “Our research shows that for some species you can get more breeding birds in spring simply by providing extra food from late winter to early spring.  This new option is a fantastic move and will help support over-winter survival of farmland birds.  Farmers are already doing a great deal for wildlife and this is another important way that they can successfully help the recovery of bird numbers.”

The new bird feeding option is designed to complement other sources of seed food on the farm.  The new option is straightforward to implement and does not require any additional land to be taken out of production.  Farmers in ES agreements which already include extended over-winter stubbles (EF22) or wild bird seed mixture (EF2) can easily change their agreement to include an option for supplementary feeding (EF23/OF23) from the start of 2013.  Farmers who don’t currently have extended over winter stubbles or wild bird seed mixture in their agreements can add them at the same time to become eligible for the supplementary bird feeding options.  Changes to agreements to incorporate the option will not count as the single amendment allowed per ELS/OELS agreement, provided certain criteria are met.

Farmers wishing to take up the new options from the start of the new year should submit their amendment or application request to Natural England as soon as possible and by 15 December at the latest.  Best endeavours will be made to process these in time for a 1 January start or the next available start date if this is not possible.  Agreements and amendments which begin on 1 February will remain eligible for the new payment.

Farmers can implement these new options by:

  • amending their  ELS or ELS/HLS agreements to add in the new options in place of other (low priority) ELS options;
  • including the options in new ELS or ELS/HLS agreements;
  • adopting this measure on a voluntary basis this winter in advance of incorporating it into an ES agreement.

For more information on amending agreements and incorporating these options into agreement applications, please see the ELS, OELS or HLS Supplementary Guidance on amending agreements and the latest ES handbooks, all of which are now available from Natural England's online publications catalogueexternal link.

All of the new options are being introduced as a result of the Defra-led Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective Project (MESME) to address specific environmental needs that are not currently being met by the existing options.  The changes to the scheme are aimed at improving the environmental outcomes from ES by encouraging the adoption of enhanced environmentally beneficial options.


For further information (media queries only) please contact:

Linzee Kottman, Senior Press Officer, Natural England: 0300 060 2058 or 0782 4334819
David Hirst, Natural England press officer: 0300 060 1720 or 0782 7821679
Website: link
Twitter: @NaturalEngland


Photographs of yellowhammer, reed bunting and tree sparrow are available on request by emailing

Additional information:

  1. Changes to agreements to incorporate this option are effectively a ‘free amendment’ and will not count as the single amendment allowed per ELS agreement.
  2. Land managers can use farm-saved seed where available, but must keep records to verify seed sources and amounts. Tailings (small seeds removed from the harvested crop) are not permitted.
  3. As an alternative, farmers with ryegrass swards managed for silage could adopt another new ELS option - Ryegrass seed-set as winter/spring food for birds (EK20/OK20) - designed to provide overwinter seed food for birds.  This involves closing the field (or part-field) after the first (perennial) or second (Italian or hybrid) silage cut and letting the grass go to seed.  After cutting and removal, the sward is allowed to flower and set seed and is left undisturbed until at least 1 March.  As ryegrasses tend to hold seed longer than many plant species, this option can greatly increase the food available for seed–eating birds in late winter.
  4. The other new options available from 1st January 2013 for new or renewed agreements are:
    • Legume and herb-rich swards (EK21/OK21)
    • Small scale hedgerow restoration (EB14/OB14/HB14)
    • Supplement to add wildflowers to buffer strips and field corners on cultivated land (EE12/OE12) – N.B. this is not available as an amendment to existing agreements.

About Environmental Stewardship

Environmental stewardship schemes are administered by Natural England, on behalf of Defra, and fund farmers and land managers throughout England to deliver effective environmental management on their land.

The objectives of Environmental Stewardship are to:

  • Promote public access and understanding of the countryside
  • Maintain and enhance landscape quality and character
  • Protect the historic environment and natural resources
  • Conserve biodiversity

About Natural England

Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. Established in 2006 our work is focused on enhancing England’s wildlife and landscapes and maximising the benefits they bring to the public.

  • We establish and care for England’s main wildlife and geological sites, ensuring that over 4,000 National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest are looked after and improved.
  • We work to ensure that England’s landscapes are effectively protected, designating England’s National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and advising on their conservation.
  • We run England’s Environmental Stewardship green farming schemes that deliver over £400 million a year to farmers and landowners, enabling them to enhance the natural environment across two thirds of England’s farmland.
  • We fund, manage, and provide scientific expertise for hundreds of conservation projects each year, improving the prospects for thousands of England’s species and habitats.
  • We promote access to the wider countryside, helping establish National Trails and coastal trails and ensuring that the public can enjoy and benefit from them.

Select a region