If I were to say that I was panicking because I only had 1,785,000 chocolates left in my chocolate box, I suspect you would think I was a little bit mad. If I also said that something with 1,785,000 PAIRS was considered as threatened or endangered I’d get laughed out of the room. Species such as hen harriers, corn crakes, capercaillies and wild cats would making comments like: ‘You think you’ve got problems mate?’ ‘Only 1,785,000 pairs of you? Come and see me when you’re at 400! Then we can talk!’ I am, of course, talking about the skylark.
It may sound like we have a lot of this small, streaked, fashionista (look at that quiff!) of a bird, but it’s not necessarily the numbers we have that are the problem, but the numbers we had. When you think of the 1990s you may shudder with thoughts of Noels House Party, The Spice Girls and Tamagotchis, but it is also the decade when our skylark numbers went down by half. That’s right half! And unfortunately, this trend has continued and they are still declining. So what’s going on? Do we have a mystery on our hands? Do we need Sherlock on the case to catch ourselves an elusive skylark killer? Well no, it’s not quite that dramatic. The real culprit? Crops. Bit of an anti climax perhaps, and even though crops as a cause may be a bit dull, it may also mean we have a chance of protecting our skylarks.
The problem is there has been a widespread change from spring sown cereals, to autumn sown cereals. Why does that matter? Well, autumn sown cereals are taller and denser in their season than spring sown crops. In such crops, there are few birds that nest and those species that do tend to raise fewer broods than birds that nest in spring sown crops. As well as this, they often nest near tramlines where tracks drive to apply spray to the crop. And as ever, being a ground nesting species, they are vulnerable to predators.
But their problems do not stop there I am afraid. Food supplies in winter have also been reduced due to a lack of stubbles (shorter stalks in field when crop has been harvested) which are a favoured feeding area for the skylark. And after all this, they have also taken a hit due to grassland farming intensification. Livestock densities have been increased and this leaves grasses that are too short for the lark and also results in more nest trampling. Silage has also become favoured over hay and this has lead to an increase in cutting machinery being used, again, destroying nests.
Phew. They don’t exactly have it easy do they? No wonder their numbers are on a downward spiral. But all is not lost. Knowing the threat means we can try and work toward a solution. The main suggestion is ‘skylark friendly farming’, which would involve changing timings of sowing and ploughing crops and reducing chemicals used in farming. A big ask? Perhaps. Though it may sound like a hopeless case, with some saying we may as well wave goodbye to our skylarks now! Not so. After all, there are still 1,785,000 pairs and therefore, we still have a good chance of stopping the decline. If we act quickly enough.
The skylark is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which means that to knowingly kill or injure a skylark is illegal. However, farming practices are an exception. Currently their conservation status is of ‘Least Concern’. Oh good, I hear you say. Well, we don’t have to worry about that just now! Let’s take a leaf out of the ostrich’s book and bury our heads in the sand. Excellent plan!
Maybe not. This little bird needs help now. The warning signs are there and thankfully we have taken some notice of them. We should act now before their numbers drop any further. After all, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?
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