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Skylark plots

Skylark patch at Hope Farm

Image: Darren Moorcroft

The trend to sow more cereal crops in the autumn rather than in the spring has been associated with a decline in farmland biodiversity. The taller and denser structure of winter wheat crops makes them unsuitable for birds such as skylarks that nest and forage on the ground within crops. 

Although some attempt has been made to redress the loss of spring-sown cereals through the provision of agri-environment measures, such prescriptions are relatively expensive to the taxpayer and are still deemed unfavourable to many farmers. However, it may not be necessary to depend on reversing the original causes of declines to aid skylark population recovery. 

An alternative approach has attempted to enhance biodiversity in the farmed landscape through solely manipulating the crop structure to enhance skylark numbers (and other within-crop biodiversity) while minimising impact on crop profitability.

Project objectives

  • Following on from early trials at RSPB Hope Farm, the Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment (SAFFIE) project studied how low cost changes in sowing and physical management of the crop could affect the crop structure of winter sown cereals, bestowing similar advantages to wildlife (including skylarks) to those expected from spring cropping. The experiment compared the impact of 'normal-practice' wheat to two novel options: 1. creating undrilled patches, also known as 'Skylark Plots' within the crop 2. establishing the crop with wider-spaced drill rows (WSR).
  • The hypothesis was that manipulating vegetation in the crop (i.e. providing Skylark Plots and WSR) would create a diverse sward, thus increasing farmland biodiversity in general and, by enhancing the diversity, abundance and availability of arable plant and invertebrate food, and the provision of nesting habitats, would benefit farmland birds such as skylarks.

Progress so far

  • Collection and analysis of data on skylark territory/nest densities
  • Collection and analysis of breeding success data from over 300 skylark nests
  • Collection and analysis of foraging data
  • Collection and analysis of data on interactions between vegetation structure, abundance/availability of food and bird foraging
  • Production of papers in scientific jounals
  • Production of <a href="http://www.saffie.info/">SAFFIE</a> Final Report and Enhancing Arable Biodiversity Booklet
  • Collection and analysis of data on best method of creating skylark plots
  • Completed PhD study

Work planned or underway

SAFFIE project (2002-2006) now concluded, as is supplementary research at RSPB's Hope Farm on the best method of creating skylark plots.

Results

There were differences in vegetation cover, structure and seed production between the skylark plots and the crop - the vegetation in plots was shorter, sparser and patchier.

The vegetative structure of plots was likely to have substantially increased access to the chick-food resources that were present.

Probably as a result of this, in the skylark plots treatment, skylark territory densities were higher (particularly in the crucial late-season breeding period) and the number of skylark chicks reared was nearly 50% greater than in conventional wheat crops.

In fields with skylark plots and 6m wide grass margins, there were very high densities of territorial skylarks but nesting success was reduced due to high levels of nest predation in the crop near to the field margins.

The WSR treatment provided some wildlife benefits (particularly for skylarks) but effects were not as consistent or as pronounced as for the skylark treatment and a crop yield decrease was noted on some sites.

The striking success of the treatment for skylarks suggests that, if widely adopted alongside other ‘skylark-friendly’ options (e.g. overwintered stubbles to provide the other resources needed for skylarks to complete their life-cycle), it could benefit skylark populations.

In England, this measure is now available as the 'Skylark Plots' (EF8) option in the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. See http://www.saffie.info/ for details

The below graph (contained in the image gallery) shows estimated skylark productivity in terms of chicks produced per nesting attempt per treatment for: (i) the entire breeding season and (ii) by period, for early & late summer. Treatments: no-SP (winter wheat with no Skylark Plots); SP (winter wheat with Skylark Plots); WSR (winter wheat with wide-spaced drill rows). Period: overall (April-July); early (April-May); late (June-July).

Gallery

Who to contact

Tony Morris
Senior Conservation Scientist
E-mail: tony.morris@rspb.org.uk

Partners

ADAS

British Trust for Ornithology

Central Science Laboratory

The Game Conservancy Trust

Natural Environment Research Council - Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Syngenta

CAER (Centre for Agri-Environmental Research - The University of Reading) 

Funding

SAFFIE (LK0926) This project is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) and Natural England (formerly English Nature), through the Sustainable Arable LINK programme.

The industrial funders are British Potato Council, Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), Crop Protection Association, Home-Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA), Jonathan Tipples, Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd., Syngenta, the National Trust, and Wm Morrison Supermarkets PLC. 

See http://www.saffie.info for more details.

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