The song of a singing skylark is very much the sound of Suffolk farmland during the summer months, and birds can be heard at sites right across the county.
But this is a songster whose populations have undergone a significant decline, leading to its placement on the Birds of Conservation Concern ‘Red-list’. The reasons for the change in fortunes are all too familiar; the process of agricultural intensification (and in particular the switch from spring to autumn sowing of cereals) has reduced the number of breeding attempts Skylarks can make within a season. In addition, the change in farming practice may have lowered overwinter survival rates because of the loss of the winter stubbles that used to be so rich in spilt grain and other seeds.
Of course, Skylarks don’t just breed on farmland; areas of rough grassland, with a short sward, and forestry clearfell also support good populations. Away from Suffolk the species also breeds on moorland and other upland sites. Because Skylarks breed in open country – they avoid small fields with well-developed hedgerows – you might think that their nesting attempts would suffer from very high levels of nest predation. However, the nests are well hidden, typically placed in a natural hollow with the surrounding vegetation growing up to provide cover. The eggs are delicately patterned and this helps with their camouflage. In addition, adult Skylarks are very cautious around the nest, often landing a little way from the nest and then walking in, part hidden by the sward.
In an attempt to halt the decline in Skylark populations, targeted options were introduced to the farmland management prescriptions available under the agri-environment schemes operated as part of the Common Agricultural Policy. Known as ‘Skylark plots’ these small squares of land are left out of production, providing the Skylarks with nesting habitat within the wider crop. There is some evidence that the approach of introducing management options aimed at wild birds has worked, with the declines of several farmland bird species, Skylark included, having slowed since the schemes were introduced. What we have not seen, however, is the recovery of populations to former levels, underlining that more work is needed if we are to understand how best to integrate farming and wildlife.
Farmers have generally been very supportive of these approaches, recognising the powerful role that they can play in supporting a countryside rich in wildlife. It is important that the best research information be made available to test and monitor policy decisions, like agri-environment schemes, introduced to provide farmers with tools to deliver wildlife benefit. Only by doing this can we evaluate what works and what doesn’t and, by doing so, support the decision making process that will ultimately determine just how rich in wildlife our countryside will remain. More information on the research being targeted at Suffolk’s Skylarks can be found online via http://www.bto.org/support-us/appeals/farmland-bird-appeal