Skylark Alauda arvensis, at the grassy edge of a small field. Cornwall

Skylarks

The RSPB is using its arable farm in Cambridgeshire to trial practical ways farmers can use to manage their cereal crops which will help combine the needs of skylarks with profitable farming.

Skylarks in the UK

The skylark is found across many types of open habitats.

In the UK, the single most important habitat is farmland, not because it holds particularly high densities, but because it covers such a vast area. 

More than two-thirds of skylarks are found on lowland farmland, with nearly 40 per cent in cereal fields. Therefore, any changes in management that affects the suitability of cereals for skylark can have a huge impact on their population.  

Species status 

  • Phase of recovery: trial management 
  • Red list Bird of Conservation Concern 

Changes in farming

Cereal farming has changed markedly since the 1950s. In the early 1960s, around 80 per cent of the UK’s cereals were sown in spring, but by the 1990s, this had dropped to just 20 per cent. Autumn-sown crops give farmers better yields but adversely affect skylarks.  

Since the early 1980s, the skylark population has dropped by over half, with up to a million-and-half fewer pairs as the birds haven’t been able to breed successfully. Skylarks have been lost mainly in areas where there is intensively-managed farmland. The birds have fared much better in coastal and upland habitats. Skylarks have also declined severely in most of western Europe. 

Skylark on fence post with barbed wire.

Skylarks and Hope Farm

In the 1990s, RSPB research identified a noticeable difference in skylarks’ nesting activity in spring wheat compared to winter wheat. Skylarks in spring-sown crops nest for longer and can raise two or three broods, but in winter crops most stop nesting in late May, raising just one brood, as the crop becomes too tall and dense and stops the birds having easy access to the ground.

Recognising the challenges faced by farmers and wildlife on arable farmland, in 1999 the RSPB bought Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire. It is an arable farm and has been used by the RSPB to carry out research into effective wildlife-friendly farming methods. The farm was used to develop skylark plots. These plots are unsown areas four metres by four metres in size within winter cereals. This makes the crop more attractive to skylarks, which nest on the ground. 

A simple solution 

Having provided skylark plots at Hope Farm, and other farms (as part of a wider research project – SAFFIE (Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment) – we know that skylarks in fields with these plots have a longer breeding season and produce more young than in typical winter cereal fields. Skylarks have better access to the ground to find food such as spiders and beetles, a benefit which other birds, such as yellowhammers, are also able to enjoy. Importantly, plots have a negligible impact on the farmer’s yield.  

Having scientifically proven this cheap and easy method of helping skylarks, the RSPB (and SAFFIE) has successfully persuaded the government to reward farmers in England for providing these plots on their farms through agri-environment schemes. This provides an excellent example of research helping to inform agri-environment policy. 

Hope for the future

Skylark numbers in some areas of the UK have stabilised, although they continue to decline in some cereal growing areas and have yet to recover to former levels.

Having understood what the skylark needs in cereal fields, the RSPB is working closely with farmers across the UK to encourage those growing winter cereals to use skylark plots. 

Demonstrating the benefits to skylarks and the ease with which farmers can create these habitats is crucial. If a significant number of farmers introduce these plots, the skylark population may once again reach its previous heights.

The success of the plots has attracted significant attention across Europe, with BirdLife Partner organisations in European Union countries now pressing their own governments for skylark plots to be funded in their agri-environment schemes. 

Since around 350,000 square kilometres of cereals are grown in the European Union, this small change could see a dramatic improvement in the population across Europe.

Acknowledgements

RSPB members generously donated money that enabled the RSPB to buy Hope Farm. Thanks also to our partners in SAFFIE (a collaboration between conservation bodies, research organisations, Government and the farming industry), and all the landowners and farmers who have allowed access to their farms in order for us study this species in detail.

A skylark perched on a fence post with a caterpillar in its bill.