19 January 2000
Autumn sowing disaster for skylarks
by Donald MacPhail
THE switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereals over the past 30 years has been disastrous for the skylark, claim conservationists.
Researchers from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found twice the density of skylarks in spring cereals compared to autumn-sown cereal crops.
The conservation group has just conducted a comprehensive study of 995 skylark nests across 24 farms which found that bird numbers have plummeted.
Spring-sown cereal stubble provides valuable winter food and safer nesting sites than autumn-grown varieties which may be too long and dense.
Between 1968 and 1996 the area of spring cereals dropped from 73% to 16%. Birds were forced to other areas where they were more at risk to predation.
The RSPB called for an increase in spring-sown cereals under government environmental initiatives such as the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
But autumn-sown varieties are likely to remain popular because they have a longer growing season than spring-sown cereals and offer higher yields.
The National Farmers Union said that the move to autumn-sown cereals was brought about by the need for British agriculture to be competitive.
“Part of this change has been from the demand for ever more competitively priced produce,” said an NFU spokeswoman.
But she added: “Farmers would be prepared to return to spring-sown cereals if they could be assured that [consumers] were prepared to pay more.”
Populations of many farmland birds have crashed over the past 30 years. Skylark numbers have fallen by 2,300,000 pairs, a drop of 75%.
The intensification of farming is widely blamed for this trend, although some observers say increased predation by crows and sparrowhawks is also a factor.