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Skylark plots

Skylark plot at RSPB's Hope Farm

Skylark plots are undrilled patches created by briefly switching off the drill when sowing winter cereals.

Image: Andy Hay

Skylark plots are undrilled or sprayed-out patches in winter cereal fields. They have been proven to boost summer feeding opportunities for skylarks in areas of predominantly autumn-sown crops. If spring crops are not a main feature of your rotation, this is an important measure to conserve skylark numbers.

Key points

  • Skylark plots are easily created by switching off the drill to create undrilled patches of at least 3 m wide in winter cereal fields. Alternatively, they can be sprayed out in a drilled field before the end of December.
  • Fields with two skylark plots per hectare have been shown to have significant benefits for skylarks, and may also help yellow wagtails

Benefits to wildlife

Skylark plots increase the number of chicks that skylarks can rear in winter cereals. Winter cereal fields with skylark plots hold more nesting skylarks throughout the breeding season than conventional cereal fields, especially late in the season when numbers in conventional fields tail off as the crop becomes taller and thicker. Yellow wagtails also struggle to breed successfully in winter cereals late in the season, so may well benefit from skylark plots too.

On average, nests in fields containing skylark plots produce more chicks than those in conventional fields. Skylark chicks that fledged in fields with skylark plots are also heavier, suggesting that they are better fed and more likely to survive the winter. Overall, skylark plots improve the productivity of nesting skylarks by about 50%.

Skylarks do not generally nest in the skylark plots, but instead use them for foraging. In a conventional winter cereal field, skylarks can forage easily in April but, by June, more than half of the foraging has to take place outside the field. If adjacent fields also contain winter crops, skylarks will struggle to find sufficient food. However, in fields with two skylark plots per hectare, they continue to forage easily within the field throughout the season.

Implementation

Create skylark plots in winter cereal fields. The fields should be more than 5 ha in size and have an open aspect. Fields bounded by trees or adjacent woods are not suitable unless they are larger than 10 ha.

Skylark plots are created by switching off the drill (or lifting it up) to create undrilled patches at least 3 m wide and a total area of at least 16 square m. A tail-off of cereal grain in the plot after the drill has been switched off or lifted up is to be expected. If you have machinery that cannot be switched on and off easily, then an alternative would be to drill the field as normal and spray the plots out with a total herbicide before the end of December.

The ideal number of plots in a field is two per hectare. They should not be connected to the tramlines and should be sited away from field boundaries and telegraph poles. Research shows that plots sited more than 80m from the edge of the field perform significantly better. Typical plots of 4 x 4 m will take up less than half of 1% of the field area.

No further action is necessary - skylark plots will receive the same sprays and fertiliser applications as the rest of the field. If you have concerns about difficult weeds, such as black grass or wild oats, arising within the plot, you can control them using a knapsack sprayer – although this was rarely required in skylark plot trials.

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Last updated: 4 September 2009

Related advice

Downloads

  • Skylark plots advisory sheet (159Kb)

    Skylark plots are undrilled patches in winter cereal fields. They have been proven to boost nesting opportunities for skylarks in areas of predominantly autumn-sown crops.