I really like skylarks. I would go so far as to say I love them. It’s not because they are particularly attractive – though I do enjoy their cryptic colouration and their perky crests. No I love them because of the association they give me to the British countryside. Quintessentially the sound of a soaring skylark as it ascends from a grassy hill slope into the summer sky is worth more than anything (listen here). I also love those October days on the East coast – say at Barns Ness in East Lothian, when on a cool Easterly wind the call of groups of skylarks can be heard as they head inland after crossing the North sea, escaping the hard winters of Scandinavia which will freeze the ground and deny the larks access to the food they need.
Photo: Ben Hall
Skylarks are amongst the most widespread birds in the UK, they can be seen from Cornwall to Caithness and from Fermanagh to Norfolk – at virtually any time of the year. But how many of our fellow citizens know if they have seen or heard a skylark? Can they hear them above the roar of the traffic?
Sadly the ability to see one has halved in the past 40 years. Estimates from the BTO/RSPB/JNCC Breeding Bird Survey show that trend appears to be continuing, but at a faster rate in England than Scotland. That’s probably because Scotland still has a lot of Spring sown arable crops-which the birds favour and that also means lots of winter stubbles. They are still widespread, but rather than every walk in the countryside being accompanied by the distant song from a soaring male lark, you make a mental note if and when you hear one these days.
Why has this happened? Relatively few of the skylarks preferred farmland and fields have been covered by roads and housing – they still remain so some other factors are at work. Skylarks nest on the ground in grass or crops, they feed insects to their young, and in winter they depend on grass and weed seeds. A simple life that for generations was amply provided for – but sadly less often nowadays.
If you nest on the ground you are vulnerable to farming operations like rolling fields, harvesting crops or cutting silage. A skylark needs 40-45 days to lay a clutch of eggs and rear young to the stage they can fly. In the more intensive arable regions there is simply not enough time between agricultural operations to allow this. Furthermore the switch to winter sown cereals mean that in the spring as skylarks try and nest the crops are already well grown and too dense for skylarks to nest in (the loss of winter stubble also means no gleanings either).
Photo: Chris Gomersall
In dairy and intensive beef rearing areas, grass fields are lush because of the investment farmers make in fertiliser, rolling the fields, drainage and the like, to increase yields of grass – cut as silage for the cattle. We all know that dairy farmers in particular are up against it financially, so what they are doing makes good economic sense so who can blame them. Again skylarks find such fields rather hostile for breeding with rolling and early cuts of silage in particular making life nigh on impossible, and there is not much food for them either.
This combination means that skylarks in the lowlands are pushed to grassy margins or along ‘tram’ lines through the arable crops-where the wheels of the tractors keep areas open, but we now know this makes them and their nests more vulnerable to ground predators like foxes.
It’s only in the Upland fringe, where extensive farming practises hold sway do they hold their own. Interestingly they can also breed on higher areas of saltmarsh which escape the tide, and which in winter have many saltmarsh plant seeds to feed on. But help is at hand. At our Mersehead reserve on the Solway, our use of Spring cropping and broad field margins has seen skylarks increase from a handful of pairs to over 200 in the space of 10 years. And better still at the RSPB’s Hope farm we have pioneered skylark ‘patches’ for winter sown arable cops. These small areas are sown at lower seed density, cost the farmer little by way of lost production (indeed the English Higher level agri-env scheme will even pay you to do it), and skylarks love them. When set-aside was widespread we found that birds like skylarks, lapwings and grey partridges loved the fallow weedy fields and numbers increased locally. So the lessons are clear, give skylarks some space on the farm and we can improve their fortunes. Recently I helped launch a new initiative with the SAC, one of the UK’s largest agricultural research and training institutes, to investigate how we can make dairy farms better for birds like skylarks. Farmers want to know practical low-cost actions they can take to help birds-and we are at the forefront in trialling this.
So lets celebrate the skylark and encourage and reward farmers to give just a little piece of their farms for this truly wonderful bird, that has inspired so many down the years about the British countryside.