I woke up thinking of the skylark, how common it had been in my youth, how rarely heard today – how missed that sublime sound when in the open fields that are obvious skylark land.
What is more sublime on a clear blue spring day than the trill of the skylark as it hovers and flutters up and down over its territory – the inspiration of poets, notably Percy Bysse Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark and George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. I give the first few lines of each:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert –
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art…
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,
Meredith’s poem was of course the inspiration for Vaughan Williams in producing one of England’s most popular classical music pieces The Lark Ascending, as described in Wikipedia.
The RSPB tells us that “skylark populations are declining in almost all countries of northern and western Europe. In the UK, the population halved during the 1990s, and is still declining. In the preferred habitat of farmland, skylarks declined by 75% between 1972 and 1996”.
The main cause of this decline is considered to be changing farming practices: “the widespread switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals”, “the absence of stubbles, which are favourite feeding places” and “increased use of insecticides and weedkillers… likely to remove an important part of the food source”.
In grassland habitats “increased stocking densities on grazing land have made the grass too short for skylarks, and increased the risk of nests being trampled” and “a switch from hay to silage has resulted in many nests being destroyed by the cutting machinery, since the period between cuts is often too short”.
Fortunately the RSPB has been on the job since the 1990s and has successfully piloted on its own farm ways of managing the crops in a skylark-friendly fashion, produces information on good farming practice, and government is helping with incentives for farmers to do the right thing. The story is told in Back from the Brink.
The skylark population has now stabilised in some areas, but continues to decline in some cereal-growing areas. There’s a long way to go before, if ever, it gets back to the level of my youth. Farming would have to recognise that the job of growing food cannot be prioritised over the complementary job of maintaining the natural environment that enables it to be sustainable and sustains the spirit of the rest of us.
Skylark picture from RSPB website