Open Letter September 2018
Dear MH Trust Board Member,Malvern Hills District/Herefordshire County/Worcestershire County/Local Parish Councillor, (also sent to AONB, Natural England and local Wildlife Trusts)
We are writing to ask for your support in encouraging Malvern Hills Trust to change grazing on the Malverns to benefit wildlife and the landscape. Without these changes Malvern’s lost skylarks have little or no chance of returning and a new grazing contract now being let will set current over-grazing practices for another ten years.
Thank you for your attention
Save our Malvern Skylarks Campaign Coordinator on behalf of campaign supporters*
We are calling on the Malvern Hills Trust to encourage the return of Malvern’s lost skylarks and other wildlife
The skylark has suffered a steep decline with the recent intensification of grazing and the loss of wild open grassland. In 1988 there were 54 pairs filling the summer skies above Malvern; now all are gone from the high hills and there are only eight territories left on the surrounding commons.
The Northern sector is the last area where skylarks bred on the high hills and where they are most likely to return, but the current land management regime makes this unlikely. The Trust is about to let a new 10 year grazing contract that will pay graziers £541,000 over ten years to graze down to 2-15cms on the Northern Hills – too short for skylarks that need 20cms plus (1). Unfortunately, the Trust has ignored extensive evidence of the benefits to skylarks and other wildlife of that more lenient grazing. We feel the issue has become serious and are calling for:
- The Trust to start a grazing regime that can bring skylarks back. Grazing needs to cease early enough for grass to be 20cm plus in March, and left undisturbed until mid-August. The Trust has rejected expert advice on 20cm+ grass height, saying it applies to farming land (2) despite evidence from surrounding uplands where larks are doing well in longer grass. The Trust also maintains that grazing is critical to control scrub. But on the high hills photographs (4) show that there is more not less scrub as grazing has intensified. Yet in ten years without any grazing from 1992 shrubs did not invade the high hills where larks used to breed and the taller 30cm grass also held a lot more butterfly, insect and other wildlife. We need to get back to that.
- The Trust to be clear about how land management supports skylarks and other species alongside other conservation priorities. The Trust needs to get behind its own vision “The natural sound track of summer is richer and fuller than in recent times with Skylark outpouring its song” rather than saying that the high hills are too busy now or blaming national decline, which seems defeatist. Local Poolbrook and Hollybed commons (3), equally busy with walkers and dogs still have skylarks, as has busy Ashton Court in Bristol. The key difference is that the grass is longer in these areas.
The Trust has provided no data on the detailed effects of its grazing policies on biodiversity and other conservation goals. It says that clearing mid slopes will create skylark breeding territory (2) but skylarks will not nest on the steep, overlooked mid slopes – they never have in the Malverns. Without such rigorous underpinning there is a danger that a grazed farmland landscape will become an end in itself, but with impoverished wildlife.
- Natural England, as key funders of the Trust, to advise on conditions required for all species: An initial assessment of the 56 plant, 13 bird, 3 mammal and 9 butterfly species quoted in the Malvern Hills SSSI showed that more lenient grazing would benefit almost all species in skylark territory. The Trust declined to engage in any detail about its grazing plan, saying that was for Natural England to advise on. If Natural England sets the grazing rules (which the Trust declines to make public) then we call upon it to challenge and support the Trust to be more specific about the type of grazing required in the new contracts to protect and enhance nature.
We are also asking others with responsibilities of care of the Malvern Hills, including our MPs, councillors and Malvern Hills AONB, to encourage and support the Trust to take these steps. We have a fine new sculpture in Great Malvern, celebrating the special place of the skylark in the history of Malvern, but no skylarks on the high hills. Yet it would take just an extra 10cms of grass for a real chance of skylarks returning there and increasing on the commons.
Further information including evidence presented to the Trust is at http://malvernskylarks.org/
(1) 20cm plus is not controversial “Skylarks nest on the ground, in vegetation which is 20–50 cm high” RSPB website conservation advice!
“(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
“By simply reducing the grazing we have produced fantastic results for breeding Skylark in two sites on Bredon Hill. 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 butterflies and grasshoppers.” John Clarke Manager of Bredon Hill and Cotswold skylark conservation project since 2005
“They (skylarks) are still widespread on Clee Hill and Long Mynd, which are not “improved” or heavily grazed.” Leo Smith Shropshire County Bird Recorder and author of Birds of Shropshire
(2) Malvern Hills Trust Land Management Committee Meeting, 7th December 2017. The minutes detail the CEO’s response to questions raised by the campaign including:
On 20cms plus habitat criteria “generic advice for skylark conservation in a typical farmland setting, not applicable to the Malvern Hills”
On skylark habitat “extending restoration of open habitats on the middle slopes……would provide new areas of open short grassland vegetation for potential skylark use away from the busy ridge”
(3) Grazed Commons The same principle needs to apply to the grazed commons. Poolbrook Common is cut late as a wildflower hay meadow and so preserves the long grass needed. Castlemorton Common and Hollybed are grazed and skylark territories remain only in the longer grass areas.
(4) Grazing is not working to control bracken or gorse – increased below as grazing has intensified. (follow link for pictures)
* Save our Malvern Skylarks Campaign supporters have reviewed and agreed this letter from a wider base of general support for the campaign. They include: Peter Colwill, Roger Mortimer, Richard Lee-Hueng, Richard East, Neil Pugh, Ruthie McNally, Matt Woodford, Mike Gordon, Susan Gordon, Penny Witcomb, Rob Harper, Sue Scott-Wilson, Lisa Dance, Hereford County Clr Dr Ellie Chowns, Ian Wells, Robin Lee, Shabra Dobson, Catherine Bower
Support has also been received from Bosbury and Coddington Parish Council (Parish Clerk Emma Thomas), Cllr. Peter Smith ( Priory Ward, Malvern Town Council) Founder and Artistic Director – Autumn in Malvern Festival (who instigated, commissioned and funded the Skylark scupture in Rose Bank Gardens last year).