The Fate of the Skylark in the UK
I walked away from my house, across the train tracks, along the narrow lane, through the hamlet, and then across the meadow, until the air quivered with the sound of skylarks singing. I am reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, ‘To the Skylark’, in which ‘All the earth and air/With thy voice is loud’.
Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’ (1820)
I stand at the edge of a broad, quintessentially East Anglian field, and rest my eyes for a few moments, unfocused, on the sloping farmland, on the receding hedgerows, on the distant factory in the shallow valley, and just absorb the birdsong for a few minutes. This is a favourite spot: just a few minutes’ walk from our home, and it’s easy to forget how close I am to the town.
A fluttering movement about thirty metres in front of me brought my focus back from the horizon, and I notice three skylarks hovering above the field, seemingly just playing in the stiff breeze that is coming across from the south. They dance around each other for a few more minutes, and then quickly drop down into the short early shoots of a cereal – barley, I think – growing in the field.
Skylarks are important to us here on these isles. There is a strong English tradition of poetry celebrating the skylark, from poets as diverse as William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, George Meredith, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Isaac Rosenberg. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – which is regularly voted the most popular piece of classical music in Britain – was inspired by Meredith’s poem of the same name.
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake
George Meredith, ‘The Lark Ascending’ (1881)
For such celebrated birds, skylarks are surprising ordinary-looking, something between a thrush and a female blackbird. While identifiable for their tall crest when alarmed, and by certain markings on the upper chest and tail feathers, it is their song that is their most distinguishing characteristic: a constant, chaotic stream of chirping and tweeting that forms the background to every idyllic picnic or countryside walk.
Yet, despite their central place in British culture, they are now critically endangered. In the UK, skylark populations have dropped significantly since the mid-1970s; here in East Anglia, the picture is particularly bad, with a 75% decline between the mid-1990s and the late-2000s. Things have been looking better for skylarks in recent years, but they are still a long way from their pre-1975 numbers, and far from safe.
There are a number of factors, but agricultural changes are the most significant, especially the shift from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereal crops. In order to maintain or increase their populations, skylarks must be able to have multiple broods each year (ideally three or four), and require nesting sites where surrounding vegetation is between 20-50cm high. However, earlier sowing of cereals means that on a huge percentage of our farmland, skylarks only have a chance to have one brood before the crops have grown too high to make suitable nests.
Due to its sensitivity to changes in farming, the skylark is one of 19 birds used to calculate the UK Farmland Bird Indicator, which uses data collected from the British Trust for Ornithology’s Common Bird Census (1962-2002) and Breeding Bird Survey (1994-present). Since birds sit at the top of many food chains in Britain, they are a good benchmark for measuring the impact of modern agricultural practices on wildlife. Of the 19 species, 12 have declined; some farmland specialists, like the corn bunting and the tree sparrow, saw population drops of more than 90% since the mid-1970s. Overall, the decrease across all 19 species is around 55%, meaning we have less than half the number of birds in our rural skies than we did 50 years ago.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’ (1917)
Like so many animals, the skylark has developed in tandem with human agricultural activity, but – as farming intensifies and our countryside becomes increasingly unnatural – we are disrupting this ancient balance by transforming our rural landscape into a factory. Without significant investment, proactive conservation, and a reversal of the relentless drive of consumerism, intensification and waste in our food industry, the fate of so much of our wildlife will remain at threat.
I turned away from the singing fields, cross the meadow, and retrace my steps through the hamlet, and over the train tracks towards home. On the way back, I see a pair of pheasants peering over long grass, two buzzards circling high, and a kestrel perched at the top of tall oak tree, not to mention a host of smaller birds – wood pigeons, collared doves, sparrows, goldfinches.
And, from above, the slowly receding song of a skylark, falling like sunshine from the heavens. We owe it to ourselves to protect this glorious bird.
If you want to find out more about skylarks, a great place to start is the RSPB wildlife guide, and – for more information – the British Trust for Ornithology website. Also on the BTO website, you read more about the Farmland Bird Indicator. For an understanding of the cultural importance of the skylark, Ian Morton’s article in Country Life.