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Bringing back the skylark: the scientists get to grips

Friday 02 April 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard mourns the fate of the inimitable skylark – and welcomes scientific studies which might bring it back to our skies.

BACK in the 1970s, an enterprising photographer colleague of mine managed to wangle his way into a top-secret aircraft hangar somewhere in Lincolnshire and steal a picture that the Government wanted no-one to see.

This was in fact a former aircraft hangar on a former RAF airfield and the subject of the picture was no top-secret jet aircraft but a pile of wheat. A huge pile of wheat reaching up to the ceiling and perched right on the top, barely visible, was a man with a malt shovel. He could have been a skier on the very top of the piste.

The reason why the government wanted such pictures kept from public view was that this was an EEC grain intervention store, a place chosen in desperation to store huge mountains of grain which British farmers had been paid small fortunes to grow – but no-one wanted to buy.

Also at risk: the grey partridge

And – sorry it took me so long to get to the point – this was the beginning of one of the greatest disasters ever to befall our countryside birds, one that took hundreds of thousands of skylarks from our skies.

As we reported this week (see News), a conference of top scientists met at Leicester University last weekend to discuss the disastrous decline in the populations of farmland birds in the past 30 years.

The falls have indeed been calamitous: more than half the skylarks have gone but other species fared even worse: tree sparrow – down 95%; corn bunting – down 88%; grey partridge – down 86%.

Ornithologists began to worry about the situation a quarter of a century ago and scientists began to look for causes. Intensive farming practices came under suspicion – much to the farmers’ anger – and agricultural fertilisers or pesticides were suspected.

Now, the noose is tightening (as the crime writers say) around the new prime suspect, the ever-increased planting of winter wheat. The reason: to do this, old corn stubble is ploughed under and ever since man began to plant corn, stubble and its un-harvested grains have provided both shelter and food for many birds throughout winter.

It amazes me that it has taken so long to make this discovery. It also means that the farmers, so often accused of poisoning the countryside, are off the hook: they were just doing as advised by the late and unlamented Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

It was the very same MAFF which cocked up the foot and mouth crisis and is now going down in history as the biggest political plague ever unleashed on the British countryside.

For, to get back to that hidden grain store on a disused airfield, that was the result of MAFF’s pressure on farmers to ever-increase their yields – even though no-one wanted the excesses they produced, not to mention the massive burden on the taxpayers for storing it.

So the loss of the skylark’s song, for centuries the inspiration of poets and composers and every humbler human being who took a walk in the summer countryside, was almost certainly caused by politicians and civil servants whose nearest contact with nature is tending their pot-plants in their Whitehall offices.

The good news is that the decline in farmland birds has slowed and some are recovering. The government has set a target that things should return to their former glories by 2020 because, at last, someone, somewhere has realised that bird populations are a key indicator to the health of our countryside. Unfortunately, if a week is a long time in politics, 16 years is an aeon.

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