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We lost our last skylarks on the high Malverns in 2015
In 1988 there were 54 pairs of skylarks filling the summer skies above Malvern with their song as they have throughout human history. Now all are gone from the hills and in 2018 there are only 8 territories on the surrounding commons, marginally down from 9 in 2017. And sadly one territory on Castlemorton Common was mown over in the breeding season in 2017 and that territory was lost this year.
Minimising disturbance from people and dogs is always going to help but areas still holding skylarks include busy commons – but only where the grass is long enough to provide the habitat they need. The problem is that the high hills and some of the commons are too tightly grazed by Malvern Hills Trust. This is a widespread conservation problem in places like the Lake and Peak District where over-grazing is producing pretty-looking green fields with cropped grass and precious little wildlife.
The change is to reduce the intensity of grazing in skylark territories, benefiting other species as well as skylarks. This means giving the high hills their rugged natural feel back again with 30cm or so of fine wavy grass flowing in the breeze rather than what we have now – short tight grazed sward with little insect life and no chance for skylarks. On the commons it means better timed and more lenient grazing/mowing in existing and potential skylark territories.
A project at two sites in Bredon Hill only 15 miles away running since 2005 has increased their skylark numbers from 17 to 44 pairs by reducing grazing at the same time as we have been losing ours by intensifying grazing. The Bredon skylarks have spread to surrounding farmland encouraged by skylark plots. This project has achieved what all the research indicates is right for the Malverns.
The Malvern Hills Trust with direction and funding from Natural England are responsible for land management in the Malvern Hills and we acknowledge that they achieve much that is good in a difficult job. Their 2015 management plan has the right vision “The natural sound track of summer is richer and fuller than in recent times with Skylark outpouring its song on visitors to the Hills….” but a blind spot in making it reality.
What we are asking Malvern Hills Trust, Natural England for and Malvern District Council to support:
- A proper assessment of the impact of current tight grazing on all wildlife diversity so that the evidence can drive the management policy – it is not only skylarks that will benefit from longer grass. An initial assessment of the impact on key (SSSI) species has been provided to MHT, April 2018
- An assessment of the other impacts of grazing – invasive scrub including bracken and gorse is avoided by animals and still needs to be controlled mechanically, coarse weeds are being introduced by cattle dunging – so what good is tight grazing doing to justify its adverse impact on species diversity?
- Then a change back to species-rich natural grassland and a stop to the tight grazing that will turn the hills into over-developed farmland, unless the assessments show good reasons why not.