Skylarks have increased dramatically in nearby Bredon Hill at the same time as they have disappeared from the tops of the Malvern Hills.
Since 2005 John and Pamela Clarke have been working with landowners on a highly successful project that increased skylark numbers from 14 to 44 breeding pairs in 3 separate sites in the Cotswolds up to 2015. There have been big increases in other bird and insect species – what was good for skylarks has benefited them too. This is their description of the project.
Skylark Breeding in Rough Grassland in the Cotswolds
Our conclusion is that providing and managing Rough Grassland in open areas of farmland (ie with few or no predator perches) is a relatively simple way of increasing significantly the numbers of breeding skylark, meadow pipit and corn bunting – and their prey items.
“For the past ten years we have been monitoring wildlife on two sites where Rough Grassland was being developed/ managed to encourage skylark to breed. One site is a large area in a limestone quarry near Stow-on-the-Wold. The other site is on Bredon Hill (a limestone outcrop to the west of the main Cotswold ridge).
The quarry site was worked for stone many years ago but in recent times has been undergoing re-working to extract more material. As areas are restored they are rented out as arable land to tenant farmers. As part of an agreement between the quarry owner and their tenants – and with advice from us – arable wildflower margins have been created as a number of scarce to rare arable wildflower species were found there. Land waiting to be re-worked is let to the farmers as rough grazing for sheep. Originally the grassland was grazed in most months of the year. Some ten years ago we advised the quarry owner and the tenant farmer that they should try closing the rough grassland to grazing between April and August. Any invading scrub could be controlled by ‘topping’ when required. We would monitor changes to breeding bird populations. Our surveys have shown that prior to the grazing regime change numbers of breeding pairs of skylark fluctuated between 6 and 8 pairs. Since the change numbers have increased steadily until in 2015 we counted 17 pairs across the site. Corn bunting pairs increased from one or two pairs to peak at eight pairs in 2013.
On Bredon Hill in 2005, one large limestone grassland field was being grazed heavily by sheep while a nearby former arable field had been seeded with grass and was either cut for silage or grazed by sheep. Here too, we advised the farmer to remove grazing between April and August and to develop both fields as Rough Grassland. As on the quarry site, arable wildflower margins were being established in adjacent arable fields. In this site skylark plots were also established in the cropped areas. Here (in the rough grassland) the increase in skylark numbers was monitored but other species also appeared – in particular meadow pipit. Over the monitoring period of ten years the number of breeding skylark and meadow pipit has risen from 17 pairs to 44 pairs in 2015. In this area we have also recorded an increase in yellowhammer and in 2015, the first pair of corn bunting for about 30 years.
During our surveys we walk the same transects each year – and if possible twice a year – the second focussing more on plants but we also note birds, although it is later in the breeding season. During those surveys we have noted (but not recorded) a considerable increase in insects – grasshopper spp are more noticeable than most insects but we also noted an increase in anthills – and from these observations we deduce that the diversity and abundance of prey items for birds has increased.
Our conclusion is that providing and managing Rough Grassland in open areas of farmland (ie with few or no predator perches) is a relatively simple way of increasing significantly the numbers of breeding skylark, meadow pipit and corn bunting – and their prey items. We acknowledge that this management may not be suitable for small sites. We should add that on the negative side although we observed a large increase in pollinators, many nests of ground-nesting bumblebees were predated by badger. As we were not monitoring the nests of skylark we do not know what percentage was predated.”