Teme Valley Musings, August 2019

by Stephanie Mocroft

Back in February I enjoyed a circular walk up and around the Brown Clee hill. At 540 metres above sea-level, this is the highest point in the whole of the Midlands.It was a gloriously sunny day, and approaching from Abdon on the north side of the summit, the walk was a particularly fine one. Along the way small birds kept surprising me by streaking into the air, like tiny Harrier jump-jets.The birds were skylarks. After shooting vertically upwards, nearly out of sight, they sang, hovered a short while and then plummeted back to earth. Each time I spotted one, I seized my camera, but they were way too quick for me. They seemed close at hand to start with, but after a series of sky-only photographs, a picture of a sheep on Abdon Burf accompanies this article, instead of an avian portrait.

I love listening to larks singing and I enjoy craning my neck to find the black dot in the sky which is the source of the liquid notes. I’m not the only one. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was inspired to write “A Lark Ascending”,which is said to be Britain’s favourite piece of classical music. Poets, too, loved skylarks and wrote in their praise. Wordsworth called them “ethereal minstrels” and Shelley had them “showering the earth in a rain of melody”.

Skylarks can sing for up to five minutes without pausing for breath. They can even carry on singing at heights of over 1,000 feet, so can sometimes be heard but not seen. The skylark is the only bird that can sing on the ascent, whilst hovering, and also as it comes back down to earth again. It is only the males that sing, and they do so to defend a territory or to attract a mate. Prime song-time runs from late January to early July. Their voices are then rested in August and September and the birds sing only sporadically until the start of the next breeding season.

Although skylarks are widespread across Britain, they have suffered a decline in numbers over the last forty years. Of 1400 farmers taking part in a recent farmland bird survey, 30% found them to be present on their farms on the day of the survey. The birds nest on the ground, traditionally choosing a place in spring-grown crops. The hen birds builds a nest of grass, which is sometimes lined with hair, and then lay three or four brown-speckled eggs inside. Because nests on the ground are at high risk from predators, up to three clutches of eggs may be laid during a single breeding season. Fifty per cent of skylarks are thought to nest on arable ground but, since the increase in the planting of winter-sown cereal crops,these nests have been less successful in raising chicks than in the past.

For some years farmers have been encouraged to create small patches of bare ground within their crops and this practice has been shown to be successful in significantly increasing successful skylark breeding. The method is endorsed by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, and is in practice locally, so thankfully I shall be able to look forward to the enchantment of lark-song for many years to come.