IN MY young days, (you know,old money days, long before such things as kilos),skylarks were a constant summer companion, and their soaring song was only matched by their soaring flight above the farmlands of Leicestershire. Unfortunately, and unknown to me when I moved to Scotland in 1971,the rot had already set in for the skylark, due to a change in farming practice. From around 1970 the change from spring to winter cereals, as well as intensified grassland management rapidly affected the success of this ground-nesting bird. Farmers cannot be blamed, because the changes which resulted in the loss of around 12,000 birds every year were implemented as part of the Common Agricultural Policy. However, so great was the effect that, between the dates mentioned, the skylark population of the UK fell by 52 per cent. That is one mighty slump and the decline needs to be addressed immediately, a fact which has been recognised by DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). To set the scene, let me explain what skylarks need to flourish.
1: Mid-field areas in which to nest and feed. Skylarks occupy the open fields to avoid predators. They cannot be conserved by measures taken within 10 metres of the field boundary.
2: Seeds and weeds throughout the year. Adults feed on the leaves and seeds of crops, and also on weeds. Their association with weedy stubbles in winter shows that they prefer seeds and weed leaves.
3: Nesting habitat to produce up to three broods each year. They nest in vegetation that is 20-50cm high. This vegetation must be open enough to give the birds easy access to the ground. They need to make two or three nesting attempts between April and August to sustain the population. Crops such as winter wheat generally grow too tall and thick to enable more than a single brood. Silage fields attract skylarks, but are generally cut too frequently to allow successful breeding.
4: Insects and spiders in the spring and summer. Skylark chicks are fed exclusively on insects and spiders for the first week of life. These are also an important part of the adults diet from April to August. These insects are collected from crops, set aside land and pasture.
DEFRA now recognises what is needed to reverse the decline and is encouraging all farmers to take part in a Stewardship Scheme designed to promote biodiversity. Of course this entails dishing out further grants, around £30 per hectare from 2005, but as a means to an end it has to be done. The skylark is one of 40 globally threatened red-listed species. If you are on the red list, it means that all the experts agree, if something is not done it could soon be Dodo time. Meanwhile at Woodhead, where skylarks have also declined, and not because of the aforementioned reasons, I look forward to a more regular rendition of, "And the lark he sang melodious, at the dawning of the day.' For further information check out www.defra.gov.uk and www.rspb.org.uk
Your grounded den a place to hide
VAN 'the man' Morrison wrote a beautiful song about a 'Sense of Wonder' and
if ever a picture I have taken illustrates what he meant, then this little
girl taking giant steps across the
Causeway in Northern Ireland is it. With a veritable skip in her
step and a smile on her face, the Crown Jewels and half a ton of ice cream
would not have prised her away from the basalt marvel. Whereas for me, the
promise of lobster, soda bread and a night on the Guinness was enough to
tempt me back to the car after 20 minutes. However, I would like to think
that I have retained the girl's sense of wonder and greatly admire those
adults who have managed to cling to that part of their life. It is a kind
of Captain Cook curiosity crossed with Gabriel Oak candour, and a dash of
unsullied innocence thrown in for good measure. Tall order for a 51-year-old,
l8st prop forward? Not on your Nelly. David Bellamy has it, Richard Attenborough
by the bucket-load, and this morning I was diving right into my own supply,
at the sight of two short-eared owls sharing their early morning field vole
in font of me. It was 7.30am, and a cool mist still hung in necklaces around
the small conifer plantation as I began. to climb the Holme Moss road. I
knew the owls were nesting nearby and as I placed what was left of my toast
on my lap, I was excited. Teaching was an age away (two hours actually) and
life does not get any better. A double take saw me face to face with one
adult owl perched on a fence post. It was no use. stopping opposite the bird,
no matter how tempting, because it would just fly off, so I pulled up gently
about 30-40 ft further on and reached for the binoculars. So close did the
binoculars take me to the owl, his yellow eyes, lit up the optics, and all
thoughts of work were forgotten. Two further cars and a noisy motorcycle
later saw the bird lift oft towards the moor. But the show was not over,
and another adult lifted from the rough tussocks in an attempt to share the
short-tailed field vole which was swinging from the first bird's undercarriage.
After a minute or two of aerial combat and the momentary interference of
a passing kestrel, my morning display had lasted no more than five minutes,
but the desultory flight of these long winged, and day-time flying owls,
will last a lifetime. Continuing on my way to Ashton the world was, and is
a wonderful place. I am sure people think, 'what is he on?' But as I sat
there with my bacon and tomato on toast, the world was once again my oyster
and when the kids walked in, Woody was smiling. From your many communications,
readers share the aforementioned sense of wonder and that wide-eyed tadpole
in the jar joy, so cheers to you all. The little girl on the legendary
Causeway, is a metaphor for the amazing things all around us, so, please,
never stop looking.