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Woodlarks thriving in the UK

06/12/2007 00:00:00

The woodlark

  • The woodlark is a small, brown bird, with white stripes above the eyes and white streaks on the breast. It is the bird’s song which is truly memorable - a series of fluting, ‘lu lu lu’ notes, which inspire its Latin name, Lullula arborea and the French, alouette lulu. The song has also inspired poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and – arguably – Robbie Burns, although there is debate about whether Burns’ poem ‘Address to the Woodlark’ is actually about the tree pipit, which unlike the woodlark is common in south-west Scotland. The woodlark’s song flight takes it up in high, wide circles before it drops to the ground. It is on the ground the bird makes its cup-like nest. Both adults feed the young and families stay together into the autumn. It is a bird of open habitats, bare ground, scrub, heaths and fields. Their strongholds remain the east and south of England.
Woodlarks are returning to breed on England’s farmland in greater numbers than at any time in the last 40 years. A new national survey has found that woodlark numbers in the UK have risen by nearly 90 percent in the last 10 years. The rise has been driven by work to provide suitable habitat – improvements to the size and condition of lowland heaths and good management of forestry plantations. Increasing numbers of the birds now appear to be moving on to farms to breed, with many nesting on set-aside land.

There are fears however that the imminent loss of set-aside, because of changes in the way Europe pays its farmers, could limit the woodlark's spread unless suitable alternatives are provided.

3084 breeding pairs
The results of the survey, carried out by the BTO, RSPB, Natural England and the Forestry Commission (England), show an estimated 3,084 breeding pairs of woodlark, compared with 1,633 pairs in 1997 and the low point of just 241 pairs in 1986.

Traditionally a bird of heathland, farmland and more recently forest plantations, the woodlark was red-listed as a species of conservation concern in the 1980s because of a drastic decline in its range over the preceding 20 years. Much of the decline coincided with the loss of traditional, mixed farmland in the South West and Wales, along with the loss of heathland habitat throughout the UK.
Woodlark. © RSPB Images
Lowland heaths
While today, the bird’s strongholds remain England’s lowland heaths and forestry plantations, where they thrive in clear felled areas, farmland is becoming increasingly important once again.

This latest survey shows how set-aside has tempted a proportion of the UK’s burgeoning woodlark population to return to farmland.
Simon Wotton, research biologist at the RSPB, said: ‘About 21 per cent of the birds we surveyed were on farmland and other grassland habitats, of which about 7 per cent was set-aside. It seems woodlarks are moving on to this land from nearby heaths and from forest plantations.’

Set Aside
Set-aside was introduced in 1992 with the aim of taking land out of production to reduce the EU’s infamous grain mountains. The move proved an accidental boon to wildlife, including many birds, by providing a source of food in the winter and somewhere to nest free from disturbance. Recent changes to the way subsidies are paid to Europe’s farmers now seem to have made set aside redundant and it is likely to be abolished by the European Commission next year.
Sue Armstrong-Brown, the RSPB’s head of countryside conservation, said: ‘The return of the woodlark to our fields, heaths and forests is brilliant news – and shows how important set aside has become as a refuge for wildlife on our farmland. We must increase our efforts to restore and manage lowland heaths to create suitable conditions for the woodlark and also ensure that the management of forestry plantations provides suitable breeding habitat.’ The survey looked for breeding woodlarks in more than 2,550 1km squares around England and Wales. These included all the occupied 1km squares from the 1997 survey, squares occupied since then and suitable habitat nearby to account for any expansion in range. Potentially suitable habitat included squares containing heathland, forestry plantations or rapidly draining soil types, including sandy and chalky soils.

Woodlark was widespread over much of the southern UK as recently as the late 1960s but underwent a dramatic crash in range by the mid 1980s. This rapid decline led to the woodlark being red-listed as a species of conservation concern. The first national survey in 1986 found only 241 pairs in just six main population centres in southern England. Subsequently the population increased to an estimated 1,633 territories by the time of the 1997 survey.

Woodlarks in Wales & Yorkshire
This latest survey has found an estimated 3,083 territories in England and one in Wales. These are the first woodlarks to be found breeding in Wales for more than 25 years. The 1997 survey showed woodlarks breeding in Yorkshire for the first time since 1958, with two territories recorded. In 2006, this had leapt to 35. Woodlarks are likely to have spread into the county from the populations in neighbouring Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, where heathland creation and restoration in Sherwood Forest has helped to increase the population during the 1990s.

South West England
In South West England, woodlark numbers have increased by a third since the last survey in 1997. The Devon population has stayed relatively stable since 1997, but it is still found mainly in the traditional farmland areas east of Dartmoor, particularly around the Teign Valley. An increase in Dorset is probably due to the restoration and management of significant areas of lowland heathland and the sympathetic management of forestry plantations.

decreases in Suffolk
The biggest decreases have been in Suffolk, particularly in the Suffolk Sandlings. Numbers have fallen dramatically in the Sandlings plantations but have increased on surrounding heaths and farmland. Declines in Thetford Forest, as well as the Sandlings plantations, may be partly due to increased ground vegetation cover on recently cleared and planted areas.

The European Commission (EC) first introduced set-aside into the Common Agricultural Policy in 1988 as a supply control mechanism in response to the over production of cereals and increased public sector expenditure on these surpluses during the 1980s. Set-aside looks likely to be abolished as part of the ‘CAP Health Check’ in 2008. Some is already coming back into production as a result of rules allowing farmers to grow biofuels on it.

An EU-supported study forecasts that the entire area of EU set aside would be required for energy crops to meet the EU target of 5.75% substitution of conventional petrol with bio-ethanol.
Set-aside land is known to provide important feeding and nesting resources for many farmland bird species such as grey partridge, turtle dove, skylark, tree sparrow, linnet, yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting, many of which have declined severely in the past 30 years. Set-aside is also important for other wildlife including brown hares, insects and flowering plants.

Most set-aside is managed as rotational set-aside, which can provide seed food for birds through the winter, or fixed set-aside, which can buffer wildlife habitats, protect watercourses and provide nesting and insect-rich habitat through the summer. In addition, set-aside can be used to create wild bird cover crops, plant new woodland, or, under a derogation from Government, provide nesting habitat for lapwings, feeding habitat for wintering swans and geese or habitat for rare arable plants. There are also several agri-environment options that can be implemented on set-aside.

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