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Woodlark song raises plight of threatened birds

CD single promotes awareness of RSPB work for ?red list? species

Birds have been celebrated in poetry and music for centuries, but a Somerset-based musician and ‘voice of the Rugby World Cup’, Belinda Evans have joined forces to combine the two art forms - in celebration of a rare bird that is being nationally surveyed for the first time in nearly a decade. Sean O’Leary’s musical adaptation of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the woodlark is also supporting the work of the RSPB, by raising the profile of the problems faced by the species. Sean recorded an album of Hopkins’ poems, entitled ‘The Alchemist’, with soprano singer Belinda Evans in 2005, but they decided to release The Woodlark as a single to coincide with this year’s national survey of the birds – and on the poet’s birthday 28 July. Sean said: Gerard Manley Hopkins was an acute observer of the natural world, as poet and priest he saw God reflected in the beauty of his creation and sought to celebrate this through his poems. By setting them to music, I hope to bring them to a new audience and with it promote Hopkins’ passion for nature

The poem is an onomatopoeic homage to the woodlark, a fact born out by Sean’s use of the birds’ actual song as part of his musical interpretation of the piece. The woodlark’s song was also the most popular track on a British Library sound archive Vanishing Wildlife CD earlier this year.

Woodlarks are a ground-nesting bird that breeds on open heathland and farmland, but they have also adapted to breed in young forestry plantations. They need areas with short grass where they can feed on insects, but in winter will also feed the seeds of grasses and stubbles - the stems of cereal crops left behind after harvesting.The Government agreed a Biodiversity Action Plan for the species in 1998, which means it backs attempts to conserve the birds and reach certain targets to safeguard its future. The plan for woodlarks includes maintaining a population of at least 1,500 breeding pairs, but with luck increasing their numbers as well as and enlarging their range – both to be achieved by 2008. Despite a five-fold increase in the population between 1986 and 1997, woodlarks are still ‘red listed’ as a bird of conservation concern because of previous historical declines.Belinda said: Hopkins would have been concerned about what has happened to the woodlark and that’s one of the reasons we wanted to do something to support the work of the RSPB, which is actively doing something to try to reverse the decline in woodlarks along with many other threatened birds.

In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ day, woodlarks were common in Wales and England but by the end of the 19th century, the species was in trouble and in some parts of the South West of England had been wiped out, ironically because of their song. So-called ‘bird catchers’ could command a high price for males in good voice.

Numbers of woodlarks increased again from the 1920s, peaking in the mid 1950s but decreasing again from then on, a fact exacerbated by the harsh winter of 1962/3. Contemporarily, loss and deterioration of dry grassland and heaths has contributed to the birds’ decline across Europe. Intensive farming practices may also have affected the species, by reducing food available to woodlarks.RSPB farmland conservation adviser, Kevin Rylands, said: There’s a line in the poem about how the skylark is better known than the woodlark and even though woodlark numbers have increased it still holds true today. But we are working with farmers and landowners to provide suitable habitat to benefit woodlarks through the Government’s Environmental Stewardship scheme – which offers grants for environmentally friendly land management. He added: Hopefully Sean and Belinda’s song will help spread the word, not just about woodlarks but all the other species that need help, especially if the single becomes popular with farmers!

* The Woodlark CD single is available from 28 July can be ordered, for £2.95, from http://www.thewoodlark.co.uk

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote his poem about the woodlark in 1876. The opening lines of the poem (reproduced below), sung by Belinda Evans, feature as a catchy chorus in the song version of the piece.

Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can that be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of song-strain.

Sean O’Leary was born a long time ago in Liverpool. He only recently discovered Hopkins’ work and was moved and inspired to put most of his poems to music. His first collection of these songs, a double album called ‘The Alchemist’, (ISBN 0-9550649-0-2), was published in July 2005. It is available from http://www.gerardmanleyhopkins.net Hopkins’ poems can also be found on this site.

Belinda Evans grew up in Somerset and is best known as the voice of the Rugby World Cup, as she sang the national anthem to millions of viewers at the start of every England game. She first collaborated with Sean whilst studying for her A-levels and the pair have enjoyed music making ever since. A classically trained singer who works regularly in the fields of opera, jazz and musical theatre, Belinda says she loves the improvisation and sense of freedom that Sean's compositions allow. There are approximately 1,000,000 pairs of skylarks compared to around 1,500 pairs of woodlarks in the UK. In 1986, a survey of woodlarks found just 240 pairs, so the bird appears to have made something of a comeback since then. Information about the conservation status of the woodlark and the skylark can be found at http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds/guide

A national survey of woodlarks has been carried out this year, the aim of which is to provide up-to-date figures on the species to determine how well the birds are doing in conservation terms. Despite an increase in their numbers uncovered by the last survey in 1996, they are only found in a few places. Breeding birds are found mainly in eastern and southern England - the New Forest, Surrey/Berkshire heaths, Breckland and some Suffolk heaths are the best areas to find them. Birds that remain in winter are usually found in Hampshire, west Surrey and Devon, and in recent years some wintering flocks have been found in East Anglia.

4th July 2014