Land management for woodlarks
The woodlark is a rare breeding bird in Britain that is found on dry sandy soils on lowland heathland, farmland and in forest clearings.
Until the middle of the 20th century, woodlarks were quite widespread on suitable soils south of the Humber.
The abandonment of traditional management, including grazing, on heathland and marginal farmland caused the UK population to decline dramatically until, in 1986, there were as few as 250 pairs confined to heathland in southern England and a small area of farmland in Devon.
Since the 1980s, woodlarks have recovered dramatically, largely because of an expansion in the area of recent forest clearings, through harvesting and restocking, and a widespread expansion of heathland restoration initiatives. However, increases in farmland populations are, as yet, small.
What do woodlarks need?
Sparse, short grassy or heathy turf, together with bare ground, is essential as woodlarks forage for all of their food on the ground. Nests are located under grass tussocks, heather bushes or dead bracken and scattered trees are used as song posts.
Breeding starts very early – territories start to be established as early as January in the south and most pairs are incubating eggs from mid-March. They will have two and sometimes three broods so can still be breeding in July.
During the breeding season, woodlarks feed mainly on beetles, caterpillars and spiders foraged from the soil or from short turf.
During the winter, they change their diet to feed on seeds and often join flocks of finches, skylarks and buntings on stubbles and set-aside fields.
How do I encourage woodlarks?
Woodlarks need areas of short, sparse, naturally developed turf with a high abundance of invertebrate prey on bare ground. This needs to be interspersed with tussocky vegetation for nesting. They avoid areas that are overgrown, neglected or agriculturally improved.
The following management techniques will help encourage woodlarks to heathland:
- Ensure that a proportion of short turf and bare ground is constantly available in areas that are free from disturbance. Woodlarks happily exploit sparse acidic grassland and areas of pioneer heath.
- Areas of short turf for feeding need to be juxtaposed with areas of taller heather or tussocky grass for nesting.
- Regular mowing or burning, for example on a 20-year cycle, maintains a range of heather and should provide a continuity of short turf. Grazing helps to prolong and diversify the short structure.
- Where it causes no damage to other important species, keep some areas short by a combination of grazing and mowing.
- Avoid repeated burns as this will reduce invertebrate prey populations.
- Keep a sparse scatter of trees as song posts and look-out posts: this will vary according to the character of the heath, but 10 trees per 0.01 sq km is acceptable.
- Keep firebreaks mown short, or cut new ones every two years or so, as the old ones grow over.
- Control bracken to prevent it spreading to take over available habitat.
On forestry clearings
- The following management techniques will help encourage woodlarks to forestry clearings:
- Harvesting coups should be bigger than 0.02 sq km and ideally greater than 0.05 sq km in area.
- A continuity of clear fells that are in relatively close proximity, within 5km and ideally less, is needed as the woodlarks range of colonisation is about 5–8km.
- Avoid mechanised management during the nesting season, between February and July, on clear fells and restocks where woodlarks are present.
- Remove lop-and-top following clear felling to provide open feeding areas.
- Following restocking, maintain areas of short turf and bare ground – cultivate or mow between rows until the canopy gaps become too narrow. Consider applying a grass herbicide where other methods prove impractical.
- Maintain areas of short turf – mow ride edge vegetation on rotation, and cut half each year at the end of the growing season.
- If grass growth is rapid and renders the area unsuitable for woodlark foraging, consider scraping patches of ground to expose bare sand in about 2,500 sq m per coup. Note: ploughing is unlikely to achieve the same long-term results.
- Where practical, set aside some areas from restocking and keep them short by regular mowing or periodic scraping-off of vegetation.
- Control bracken – otherwise it will grow up rapidly and replace suitable habitat.
- The following management techniques will help encourage woodlarks to farmland:
- Graze low input pasture with light stocking rates – this creates a range of sward structures at a small scale.
- Avoid controlling rabbits on suitable land – the bare ground and short turf around warrens are ideal. Consider putting these areas into set-aside or arable reversion options in agri-environment schemes as an alternative.
- Ensure that land that is suitable for woodlarks is not put into woodland planting schemes.
- Create bare fallow strips or plots and keep through the year. Currently, a derogation can be obtained to create these on set-aside.
- Delay cutting or cultivation on set-aside until after the end of July.
- Retain cereal stubbles as late as possible – this is the most important feeding in winter – but plough in before nesting starts in mid March and sow spring barley (preferably).
- Follow spring barley with set-aside.
- Try to create a mosaic of winter and spring cereals – this will increase the potential breeding habitat.
- Create wide cultivated margins around arable fields. These are good for feeding and maybe breeding.
- Horticulture and market gardening can provide strips of bare and ‘weedy’ vegetated land that help woodlarks by providing feeding and nesting habitat.