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The Problem with Seagulls

Date Added: 13/04/2017

Blog by Richard Elsdon, Technical Consultant, United Oilseeds

There was a time when it was common to see a flock of seagulls following a tractor ploughing. They would wheel and dive on some newly turned up earthworm. However, more recently this delightfully bucolic occurrence seems to have all but disappeared, presumably because the earthworm population has declined, or because less land is ploughed in the autumn. I suspect that most growers now have a much higher regard for the beneficial action of the lowly earthworm and would be less inclined to allow seagulls to scavenge them.

For reasons largely connected to the easy access to food, many seagulls have taken up residence in our towns and cities. This was the case in our nearest large town, Bath.

The attractions of this Georgian city and World Heritage Site are well known across the globe and it attracts huge numbers of domestic and international tourists. In their innocence, some of them would feed the resident population of seagulls with bits of tasty sandwich or pasty.  This happy state continued until the gulls became more daring and began to snatch the food from the hands of the unsuspecting tourists. It was at this point that the council put up warning signs about the activities of the gulls plus large “gull-proof” receptacles for unwanted food. This action deprived the gulls of the food they needed, improved city centre hygiene and led to a huge reduction in the number of birds “bothering” tourists.

It was the capricious action of these gulls which reminded me of an unpredictable problem facing the oilseed rape crop at this stage in its growth cycle - that of Sclerotinia.

This disease is to my mind the most problematic of those challenges facing the oilseed rape grower.  We know that the Sclerotinia spores will be released, we know the crop needs protecting and we have a range of protectant fungicides with which to do so. What we do not know is when to apply these fungicides to achieve the greatest level of protection.

We know that, so far this season, plants in the south west and parts of the midlands have some infected petals. However, we have also been told that the onset of much cooler night time temperatures will delay this growth and we have had a run of cool nights which are forecast to continue for another day or two.  Finally, in Wiltshire, at least, we seem to have experienced very little rain over the last two weeks and some rainfall is necessary to enable the spores to stick on to the petals of the oilseed rape flower.

So what you may well ask is the way forward? I do not profess to be a meteorologist. I do think that at some point the conditions necessary for the spores of Sclerotinia to infect the crop will occur. With that in mind and observing that the new crop price for oilseed rape is much higher than that seen last year, I think some protection is called for. I have heard talk of a ‘single well timed spray’ being the best solution. Great! Please tell me when it should be applied - preferably before the event not afterwards.

In my view, two split applications of fungicide provide the longest level of protection in the most economical manner. I would apply the first application at the start of petal fall and the second application two to three weeks later. In my view, the two questions to ask your agronomist are: which fungicide should I use and do I use a half rate, two thirds rate, or three quarter rate each time?

Seagulls were run out of town by cleaning it up and removing their food sources. By carefully using fungicides, you can do the same thing to Sclerotinia.

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