Song of the skylark grows fainter as grasslands dwindle

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In terms of sheer numbers lost, no British bird has suffered more than the skylark. In the last quarter-century the number of breeding birds fell by 1.6 million, roughly halving the population in the United Kingdom.

Similar declines have hit this bird of open country across much of Europe. It evolved in the steppes, then prospered in Britain because the traditional, varied farmscape of meadows and arable fields provided food through the year. In winter huge numbers of European skylarks join the permanently resident population.

But farming and farmland have changed enormously in just a few decades, and the ground-nesting skylark cannot survive at anything near its former high density.

For now, the species is still common and widespread, instantly recognisable from the way in which the male stakes territory and attracts a mate by hovering high and pouring out its long song. If you had to choose one sound to stand for the open countryside this would be it.

People have always taken the noise to signify sheer exuberance - "larking about" - and the small bird has inspired poetry for centuries. But our ancestors also ate huge quantities of skylarks, and kept them caged and blinded for their song.

It is now one of 116 rare or fast declining animal and plant species for which rescue proposals have been drawn up and endorsed by the Government and leading wildlife charities. For the skylark, the objectives are to reverse the population slump in the intensively farmed lowland areas where it has suffered most harm.

The switch to autumn-sown cereals has erased an important winter feeding ground; the stubble fields with their spilt grain. The springtime ploughing and sowing, now largely vanished, was probably also an important food source for the birds as it brought insect larvae and other small creatures to the surface.

Grasslands were an important habitat but a large proportion of these have been converted to crop-growing fields, and much of the remainder is managed in an intensive way that excludes skylarks. Early cuts of silage grass in May destroy their eggs and chicks, or leave them open to predators.

The skylark was thrown a lifeline in 1992 through the major reform of the Common Agricultural Policy which brought in mass set-aside of arable land. Millions of acres of crop fields were taken out of production in Britain, leaving weeds and grasses free to grow - which in turn has provided seeds and insects for the skylarks. There are now the first signs that the population decline has slowed.

But set-aside may itself disappear within a few years. The conditions which led to its creation - huge crop surpluses and low international grain prices - have entirely disappeared.

The rescue plan calls for more research to establish exactly why the skylark copes so poorly with intensive modern agriculture, and "to consider" altering farming practices and subsidies once the lessons have been learnt.