Highlights of the meeting are at the bottom of this page
MALVERN HILLS TRUST LAND MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE MEETING OF 7TH DECEMBER 2017 – submission to the committee
Why a campaign? In 1988 there were 54 pairs of skylarks filling the summer skies above Malvern. Now all are gone from the high hills and there were only 9 territories for sure on the surrounding commons. The last larks bred on the high hills on North Hill and the Worcestershire Beacon in 2014 but the grass is too short for their return there now and the Trust’s excellent signs initiative can’t work without the right habitat. It is also too short on parts of Castlemorton Common. The skylark is a red list “most concern” species cited on the Malvern Hills SSSI citation.
We are calling on the Malvern Hills Trust supported by Natural England to:
- Acknowledge RSPB and other expert advice on habitat needs, especially grass height of 20cms plus
- Make the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme agreement due to start in January 2018 public so it is clear it has the potential to address skylark conservation alongside other species (and other land management arrangements if the new scheme does not include Castlemorton)
- Seek to recreate and protect skylark-friendly conditions in current and historical skylark territories i.e. lenient winter grazing to a target sward height of around 30cms and with no grazing April to mid-August inclusive. On the high hills grazing could stop at least until the target is achieved.
- Engage in a constructive dialogue that is transparent on conflicts and creative on solutions to them – though it seems that what is good for skylarks will be good for much else
- Even if other conservation priorities need to take precedence over skylarks we should at least start by recognising that skylarks need 20cms plus sward. The 20cm plus advice is not controversial, coming from several sources: The RSPB is very clear on the need for 20cms plus sward. Skylark conservation projects such as at Wimbledon Common and Bredon Hill recognise sward length as critical. Research presented in literature such as Paul Donald’s “The Skylark” support it. Photos from Clee Hill show clearly that larks were present only on 20cm plus sward and not on adjacent tightly grazed sward, confirmed by Leo Smith Shropshire County Bird Recorder. It needs to be recognised that current efforts to conserve skylarks ignoring this advice have very little chance of success.
- National decline and increasing busyness of the hills are not reasons to give up on skylarks. The Bredon Hill project tripled skylark numbers in 10 years from 2005 despite a national decline, changing only grass management. Larks were encouraged to return to very busy Wimbledon Common in 2015 after 8 years absence, during the same national decline, again including changed grass management. (Sadly none since at Wimbledon.) There are still skylarks on busy Malvern Common which is managed in a skylark-friendly way with an annual late cut rather than grazing. Dismissing these examples as “not comparable to the Malverns” does not refute the key points that skylarks can return despite national decline and can be present with high visitor numbers.
- It isn’t the only priority but, as a red-listed species of most concern cited on the Malvern Hills SSSI, skylark conservation should be one priority. Where this conflicts with other conservation aims these should be made specific. However of the 3 mammals, 13 birds and 8 butterflies cited on the SSSI citation, managing to 20cms plus sward in current and previous skylark territories looks to be either positive or neutral for all of them. The SSSI cites 8 plant habitats and there may be a conflict in three of them – but not necessarily irreconcilable. More widely, research by BTO, RSPB and Natural England (New conservation measures for birds on grasslands and livestock farms.) confirms that taller grass, earlier grazing shut-off to allow regeneration from July on (relevant to the commons) means a lot more insects which go up the food chain benefitting mice and voles, kestrels and barn owls for example.
- There is an opportunity to target scarce land management resources more effectively. The Trust plans to implement a new Countryside Stewardship Scheme from 1 January 2018. It should align demonstrably with conservation objectives including skylark conservation, recognising that the scheme it replaces does not. Doing this could release grazing resources from the high slopes for where they are needed on the mid and lower slopes and eg Bracken control. Grazing on the Castlemorton and Hollybed commons needs to be 20cms plus. Little if any grazing is required on the high hills. In the ten years of no grazing from 1992 there was no significant scrub incursion and sward height remained at around 30 cms – and contained a lot more life than now.
This meeting is being held within 200 metres of the sculpture to celebrate the special place of the skylark in the history of Malvern. Let’s make it a true celebration rather than a sad reminder of a wonderful summer experience for all who visit the hills. It really wouldn’t take that much to give our skylarks a real chance of returning to the high hills and growing in number on the commons.
20cm plus is not controversial!
“ (Skylarks need) reasonably open vegetation 20-50 cms tall, in large fields not overlooked by boundary features. They typically prefer the tops of slopes to the sides or lower areas” Kirsty Brannan Senior Conservation Officer RSPB Midlands Regional Office
“Skylarks nest on the ground, in vegetation which is 20–50 cm high” RSPB website conservation advice
“By simply reducing the grazing we have produced fantastic results for breeding Skylark in two sites on Bredon Hill. We also achieved similar results on land owned by a quarry company out in the Cotswolds. Although I haven’t visited the Malvern Hills site I can think of no reason why adopting the same grazing regime would not bring the skylarks back, along with all the other wildlife such as the ‘brown’ species of butterfly and grasshoppers.” John Clarke – Manager of Bredon Hill and Cotswold skylark conservation project since 2005
“They (skylarks) are still widespread on the commons, which are not “improved” or heavily grazed.” Leo Smith Shropshire County Bird Recorder and author of Birds of Shropshire on skylarks on Clee Hill and Long Mynd
“In 2015, a pair of Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) successfully nested on Wimbledon Common for the first time since 2007. ……According to a Paper written in 2010 by Dr Stephen Frank entitled the ‘Restoration of a population of breeding Skylarks on Wimbledon Common’, a minimum sward height of 20cm in spring would be necessary …….Skylark Protection Area cut by a contractor during the first week of August ……for the sward height to reach the necessary level to attract Skylarks……public notices positioned at strategic locations around the Skylark Protection Area between 1st March and 31st July …….keep dogs on lead, keep to mown path” Extracted from Wimbledon and Putney Commons Annual Conservation Report 2015
Report of the Meeting
Ruthie McNally, Sue Scott-Wilson and I attended for the campaign and Peter Holmes presented the counter-view. Here are our take-outs from the meeting.
In summary it seems fair to say there is a conflict between the plan-in-action which is to create short acid grassland in skylark territories on the high hills and the 20cms+ they used to have and need – we wouldn’t be having a campaign if this were not the case! The next question was what other benefits and conflicts would arise from managing to 20cms plus in skylark territories. Then what is the best win/win compromise solution. We were very encouraged that several committee members were keen to explore these questions further. There was also enthusiasm for working with local farmers to encourage skylarks and other wildlife on surrounding farmland and we would support this enthusiastically and actively as well as, but not instead of, saving skylarks on the hills. Specific actions and more detail are below:
(Our subsequent reflections and actions are in italics)
- The form of the meeting is that public attendees are invited to observe, sitting outside the meeting table and may have questions answered by the Chief Executive, Duncan Bridges at the beginning of the meeting. After that public attendees are not expected to contribute unless asked. However the committee generously allowed a statement from me and then Peter Holmes which we felt was very open-spirited. The skylark item was for update, not decision though there was welcome interest from several of the committee in continuing discussion with more information and we will continue to campaign for this.
- Chief Executive’s answers to our questions:
- Acknowledge RSPB and other advice on habitat needs of 20cms+? A bit yes and no, pointing out that most research is on agricultural land at lower levels so the 20cms plus may be an optimal agricultural figure and may not apply to the high Malverns. Everything we have read, seen and discussed points to 20cms+ being as relevant on hilltops as in farmland. Action: seek clarification from RSPB
- Make the new countryside stewardship agreement public to see whether it accommodates 20cm plus? Not possible as it includes commercial terms but it is in line with the Management Plan. Fair enough. We should have asked a better question which would have been “What in it is specific on target sward height in the agreement?” But we think we are past this to the real point which is that there is a conflict between the short acid grassland that is being pursued and the habitat that skylarks need.
- Seek to recreate and protect skylark-friendly conditions? Clearing scrub will extend habitat. Yes but not if the grass is too short, or is on steep sides or it has tree perches for predators.
- Engage in constructive dialogue? Referred to constructive dialogue that had taken place. We hope it can continue in such a positive vein.
- There was discussion on whether the high hills is a core or fringe skylark territory. We think the fact that skylarks were at their peak of 54 pairs in 1988 and very close to territory saturation of 70 pairs means that the skylarks clearly think the hills are core enough for their purposes with the right habitat. In fact Bredon report that skylarks spread from upland pasture there to surrounding farmland skylark plots. In those halcyon days the larks had the habitat they needed on the high tops as the Deschampsia Flexuosa (Wavy Hair Grass) remained intact with little encroachment despite being little grazed by the bands of free-roaming sheep. They much preferred the easy nibblings of the lower slope meadows and gardens as many of us with fond memories of chasing them out of our gardens will attest.
- There was encouraging interest from several committee members in looking further at an analysis I had started on which SSSI listed species would win and lose from 20cms plus sward in skylark breeding territories. We think this is exactly the right way forward and the only way to get beyond generalisations into the specific trade-offs. Action develop and share the species conflict list.
- Several of the committee believed that efforts should be made with local landowners to conserve skylarks around the hills. We agree entirely and will be happy to pursue this but definitely in addition to, not instead of, conserving them on the hills. Of course this issue goes beyond skylarks and links with wildlife-friendly management generally as several in the group have pleaded for. Between us we know a lot of the local farmers and I have already had a preliminary discussion with one to understand the issues from their perspective (not straightforward!). This is definitely something to pursue and we will keep the bird group informed. Action for us: discuss with RSPB and Natural England and invite interest from others.
- There was helpful clarification that Malvern Common is managed to different criteria – late-cut meadow rather than short acid grassland. That is why it has optimum skylark habitat and the high hills don’t.