Nature writer reveals the significance of songbirds

Not just a pretty voice! Nature writer reveals the significance of songbirds as the number of skylarks falls

  • The numbers of Skylarks have fallen by 1.5 million pairs in the past 25 years 
  • New book reveals how deeply ingrained the bird is in our national consciousness
  • Skylarks could be heard singing during pauses in shelling at Battle of the Somme


by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday £9.99, 112 pp)

It is the bird that refused to budge, and which carried on singing its heart out in the middle of some of the bloodiest fighting the world has ever seen.

In July 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, skylarks could be heard singing during pauses in the shelling. Sergeant H. H. Munro, better known as Saki, the author of bitingly witty short stories, wrote of his surprise at finding skylarks nesting among the trenches.

He admired how the skylark ‘could carry its insouciance to the length of attempting to rear a brood in that desolate wreckage of shattered clods and gaping shell-holes’.

In a new book, award-winning nature writer John Lewis-Stempel, reveals how deeply ingrained skylarks are in our national consciousness (file image)

Numbers have fallen by 1.5 million pairs in the past 25 years. Yet this small, elegant book shows how deeply ingrained this enchanting bird is in our national consciousness.

The skylark, Alauda arvensis, is mainly a farmland bird, one of the few songbirds to nest on open ground, producing up to three broods a season. Both the males and females are dedicated parents. Its plumage is fairly nondescript yet, apart from the nightingale, no bird has been more written about by poets, from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes.

What makes the skylark so magical is its extraordinary song, delivered while it is in flight. They can sing for up to half an hour, producing different notes depending on whether they are ascending or descending.

It’s usually the males who sing to attract females, defend their territory or warn off predators.

THE SOARING LIFE OF THE LARK by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday £9.99, 112 pp)

Before the 20th century, skylarks were so numerous that when they migrated the sky would turn black. Unfortunately, their ground-nesting habit made them all too easy to catch, and the Victorians slaughtered them in large numbers. Larks were baked, roasted, entombed in aspic or put in a pie, while their feathers were dyed and used to decorate hats.

From the second half of the 20th century, intensive farming has been a disaster for them, depriving them of the habitat they need to thrive.

Yet the solution to the skylark’s decline could be surprisingly simple. Author John Lewis-Stempel, a farmer as well as an award-winning nature writer, says that if farmers were to stop sowing winter cereals in small areas of their fields, this would give the birds a place to nest.

The RSPB has found that these ‘skylark plots’ can increase bird numbers by 50 per cent in a decade.

The thought of this ‘friendly, perky-looking little bird’ dying out is unbearable: as Lewis-Stempel says, its song is ‘the soundtrack of the British countryside.’

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