Skylarks : UK Priority Species

The superb, soaring, melodious flight of the skylark Alauda arvensis, the harbinger of sunshine, is an increasingly rare sound across the UK, and not just because of our bad weather. Skylark populations are declining in almost all countries of northern and western Europe, and in the UK the skylark population has declined by more than half since 1970. Find out here what the RSPB are doing to help and what you can do to make a difference.

An exaltation of skylarks
If you haven’t heard the lovely song flight of the skylark, be sure to get out to the countryside to hear it, as it really is a treat to experience. The continuous, liquid, spiralling song as the bird rises up into the sky is beautiful. The bird then remains still in the air for several minutes on fluttering wings before parachuting back down to the ground.

Did you know that skylark song flights can last up to an hour, and the bird can reach 1,000 feet in height before descending!

This captiviating display has provided inspiration for some of the worlds most famous poets to create flowing prose including Shelley, Wordsworth, Clare, Hardy, Meredith and Shakespeare. The skylark has also influenced many stories, films and wonderful pieces of  music such as Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending. Below is to an excerpt from Shelley’s Ode to a skylark;

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know;
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
What will our artisitic inspiration do without such spectacular muses?

Why is the skylark a conservation priority?
Well, the numbers of skylark that have bred in the UK have halved over the last 40 years and this has led conservation organisations to class the species as an important priority for conservation. The science tells us that this decline has been because of the widespread change from spring to autumn-sown cereals across UK farmland. This means that the vegetation grows tall too early in the year and prevent skylarks from having more than one brood.

What is the RSPB doing for skylarks? 

In 1999 the RSPB bought Hope Farm, a working lowland arable farm in cambridgeshire. Hope Farm is run as a commercial enterprise and aims to give hands-on examples of how farming can benefit birds and other wildlife without farmers losing income. The RSPB aims to demonstrate these new techniques to the government and decision-makers and persuade them to reward farmers for incorporating such techniques into their farming. Following research into skylark ecology, small areas left unsown within winter cereal crops were found to provide skylarks with more nesting and feeding opportunities. Importantly, plots have a negligible impact on the farmer’s yield and are a cheap and easy method of helping skylark populations recover! Skylark plots have now been incorporated into agricultural policy and funding schemes are available through Natural England.

What does the review of farming regulations mean for farmland biodiversity?
Under government spending cuts, DEFRA has announced the development of a taskforce which aims to reduce the bureaucracy and red tape of farming regulation. Whilst this move potentially could hold benefits in terms of access and application it is important to consider that with 75% of the UK land being farmed such developments have far reaching implications on farmland biodiversity. One of the regulations which has faced disagreement within the farming industry is ‘cross-compliance’, an important mechanism for the delivery of biodiversity conservation on farmland through subsidies provided for wildlife friendly farming. Many farmland birds have suffered alarming delcines over the last 30 years and these threatened species depend on positive farmland management for their survival. The reduction of industry regulations which safeguard the environment is therefore a major concern for the conservation sector and decisions which are made must be driven by environmental as well as economic needs.

What you can do to make a difference in the International Year of Biodiversity!

  • To all the farmers out there, why not take advantage of this opportunity along with 4,250 farmers who have already done so and have a breeding bird survey taken with the Volunteer and Farmer Alliance. There is also extensive information available on the RSPB advisory pages which provides advice on how to manage your land in a way to benefit skylarks. Another fantastic source of information and ways to get involved in wildlife friendly farming are our dedicated farming pages.
  • Everyone with an interest in birds can record their sightings of skylarks on BirdTrack, which is easy to use and fun. BirdTrack is a bird recording scheme that increases the value of your sightings by linking them up to a national database. The scheme is year-round and ongoing, and information is used to support the conservation of bird species.
  • If you are a keen birdwatcher you could consider undertaking a BBS square for the Breeding Birds Survey. This survey provides population trend information which enables conservation organisations to give species threat status. It is only possible to produce trend for species that have been found on more than 40 BBS squares so the more squares covered, the more species can be assessed. Taking part involves visiting a local site twice during the breeding season and recording all the birds you see or hear.

We must ensure that the serenading skylark is still filling the sky with song and us all with inspiration for generations to come!