Skylarks need our help!
These precious birds are now on the red list of endangered species.
But, do we care – after all farmers need to farm and produce affordable food…don’t they?
This is an important question and there is a bigger picture that should be discussed and debated by us all.
So first of all what is the Red List?
“To be on the red list you need to be a bird of the highest conservation concern, meaning you're in a pretty bad way. You've declined very rapidly, you're at risk of extinction globally, or you are historically depleted, meaning you have much lower population levels than in the past.”
These are the words of Dr Mark Eaton, who is the principal conservation scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). It is he that decides which bird species to put on the Red List.
There is though a counter argument. Some people might say: ‘It’s just a small bird - what is the problem? The loss of the Skylark is the price we have to pay for producing affordable food. What’s the value of a Skylark to us? We don’t eat them, and they don’t produce any other useful by-products.’
This argument and many similar ones rage throughout our society every day. It’s incredibly important that we sort out how to evaluate our natural world. If we can do that, then we can make informed decisions, not just for us now, but for all future generations. It is not just about Skylarks is it.
At this point I’m beginning to hate myself for even thinking these things. I remember sitting in a meadow at Woolton Farm, gazing up into the clear blue summer sky trying to spot the source of that beautiful delicate trilling bird song. It is an enthralling moment when you witness that sound and the sense that it harmonises the countryside around you. This year I went to the same field in search of those friends and companions. Not a single note, not a single sighting – they’d vanished. I felt a great sense of sadness, loss and quite frankly guilt at a failed responsibility.
So is the value of a Skylark just about emotional wellbeing and beauty? Would the loss of a poisonous snake or rat provoke the same evaluation?
To explore these questions more fully, I would urge everyone to listen to Prof Dieter Helm’s lectures on Natural Capital – what it means and how our understanding of it can be used to protect and enhance our natural world. He is an economist so the lectures can get a bit full on, but at least try and listen to the first two. They can be found here (5) http://www.dieterhelm.co.uk/helm-talks/natural-capital/
Natural Capital is everything nature gives us for free. There are two types of natural asset: One is non-renewable, like oil, meaning that once it is used it has gone. The other is renewable, like fish or the landscape. As long as we look after it, a renewable natural asset will go on giving for ever and ever – for thousands of generations over millions of years. That is how valuable a skylark could be. It could go on singing its heart out and enthralling people for thousands of years.
Dieter Helm: “Renewable natural capital is the stuff that really matters. What’s special about renewable natural capital? The answer is, that unlike any other form of capital, this is capital that goes on giving us benefits forever, providing we don’t trash it.”
It would be good to end this piece by mentioning some farming practices that are already happening to encourage the Skylarks (and other species) to return and breed on our farms.
It is probably a mistake to take a single species on its own and make changes to accommodate just it. A whole habitat approach would be the sensible way. In other words assess what indigenous and migratory species would normally be found in your area and then plan out what to do to encourage and preserve all of those species.
At Woolton Farm we’ve seen a big increase in Buzzards, and I do wonder if they pick off the little birds all too easily – especially those like the Skylark which is so exposed and vulnerable.
All about Skylarks (1)
Geographical area: Mostly lowland farmland and upland moors
Habitat& food: Best of all is unimproved grassland. Arable and mixed farms (see note below). Food is primarily seeds and insects.
Nesting: On the ground in open grass fields where the canopy is open enough for the birds to nest easily on the ground. Nests need to be more than 10m from headlands or wheelings so that preditors can’t find them.
Breeding: Two to three broods between April and August are required to sustain the populations.
Numbers: The UK skylark population fell by 54 per cent between 1970 and 2001.
What can a land manager do for Skylarks?
Because two thirds of Skylarks in Britain are found on farms, The RSPB is currently conducting trials to assess what land managers can do to help bring Skylarks back to a healthy breeding population (2). The biggest issue is that 40% of Skylarks are found in cereal fields (2), not necessarily through choice, but because they are the only place they can go.
Winter cereals are too dense for the spring nesting birds, so commonly they move to the edge or near the machinery wheelings, and of course they are then vulnerable to predators and other disturbances. Furthermore the high frequency of cutting of grassland for silage or early harvests of hay do interrupt the nesting cycles.
Leaving unsown plots in fields
Through its trials the RSPB discovered that by just leaving a selection of 4m x 4m unsown plots in the middle of a wheat field that a dramatic increase in Skylark numbers could be achieved. This method has now been adopted by the agriculture department and farmers can be compensated for this activity.
Changing silage practices
Silage is feed for livestock made from cutting fresh plant material (grass, wheat, maize) and then wrapping it or covering it to preserve for use in the winter. Because of the importance of spring sown cereals to the conservation of farmland birds, the department of agriculture is looking into the possibility of funding farmers to use spring sown wheat as a cereal based whole crop silage (3).
For many years now farmers have been encouraged (and paid) to leave strips of land uncultivated around their fields (4). While thick tussocky grass is probably not suitable for Skylarks to nest in, the increase in insects is of huge importance. The strips can be managed in different ways, so for example the farmer can mow or introduce grazing to cut the grass down close to the soil surface in the autumn and encourage the growth of seed producing flowers.
Other food sources
Weedy overwintered stubbles are one of the best food sources for Skylarks in the lead up to sowing a spring crop. However I’m not aware of any incentives for farmers to do this?
Grass strips established in the middle of fields where a range of plants and tussock grass can establish is a known method for farmers to use and is currently compensated for – sometimes called beetle banks.
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
3. Changing silage practices http://sciencesearch.defra.gov.uk/Default.aspx?Module=More&Location=None&ProjectID=12074
(If this link doesn’t work then search Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) /Science and Research Projects. An interesting place to look anyway to see what they are up to and how much money is being spent of these things!)
4. Information on buffer strips for grassland https://www.rspb.org.uk/globalassets/downloads/documents/farming-advice/buffer-strips-on-grassland-advisory-sheet-england_tcm9-207690.pdf
5. Natural capital