Dear Readers, when we used to go on holiday to Dorset as children, we would often walk around the ramparts of Maiden Castle, an Iron Age fort with row upon row of grassy ramparts and ditches. We would run up and down, and everywhere there was the sound of skylarks, each one erupting from the grass and singing all the way up until it was just a speck in against the hot blue of those eternal summers. A male bird can stay up, hovering and singing, for more than an hour, and this ability is taken by the female birds as evidence of fitness and health, both desirable characteristics in a partner.
For those of you who have never heard a skylark, imagine a perfect summer day, with a bit of a breeze, and the hills rolling green before you (recording by W. Agster)
And I do think that Vaughan Williams captured something of the sound, though as I chose this for my Dad’s memorial service, I have to listen with care.
Skylarks are essentially agricultural birds, and this is where they have suffered, like so many of our countryside inhabitants. There is less to eat in the stubble, and the use of herbicides means that there is less available for these seed-eating birds. Then, the sowing of late crops meant that the foliage was too high for the birds to nest in. A lot of farmers with their huge machines only leave ‘nature-friendly’ patches at the side of fields, and skylarks prefer to be better protected from predators. Various measures have been tried, but so far none of them have worked. If you have a few pennies (though who has at the moment), the British Trust for Ornithology is running a Farmland Birds Appeal, which will do research into the best ways to restore the habitat not only the skylark but other birds such as the yellowhammer, corn bunting and turtle dove.
When I went walking around Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, weighed down with worries about my parents, I was often taken out of myself by the flash of yellow that is a yellow hammer, or a flock of linnets. But one day I walked past a barren field and a skylark erupted from the rubble, singing all the way up, and taking my heart with him. Let’s hope that people of goodwill can save this bird yet.