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Sour note for the Skylark

Will Skylark needs be set aside by EEC?

With up to five times as many nesting pairs as winter wheat, set-aside has given Skylarks something to sing about. The British Trust for Ornithology is concerned that removal of rotational set-aside will reverse the good work of recent years and impede efforts to stop declines for farmland birds. As conservationists now contemplate the loss of set-aside within British farmland, BTO scientists provide evidence of the benefits of set-aside to a wide range of farmland species - but Skylarks in particular. Set-aside delivers three big benefits for Skylarks - winter food in stubbles, nest sites in summer fallows and food for chicks.

Winter food: Research by the BTO has shown that Skylark populations can only be maintained through the winter if 20% of agricultural land is available as food-rich stubble, much of which has been provided through the existence of rotational set-aside. Although some stubble is present as part of agri-environment schemes and as part of the normal crop rotation, losing set-aside from this mix could remove nearly half of the available winter feeding area.

Nesting opportunities: For ground-nesting Skylarks, set-aside fields provide great cover in which to hide nests. Nesting densities are up to five times higher in set-aside than they are in winter wheat. NB Unpublished data from BTO studies show that breeding densities of Skylark in set-aside are five times higher than they are on winter wheat. For seed-eating birds in general, densities are seven times higher. Insectivores are three times higher!Food for chicks: Rotational set-aside is a good feeding habitat, with plenty of accessible insects to feed to chicks and a rich crop of seeds for newly-fledged youngsters. Set-aside supported four to five times as many Skylarks as winter wheat, with similar foraging advantages for other species. Set-aside supported four to five times as many Skylarks as winter wheat in the late breeding season (2nd half of May to end June). Volunteers who took part in a BTO national survey of set-aside found that breeding densities of thrushes were six times higher when compared to winter wheat, with sparrows and buntings being three to four times higher.

Juliet Vickery (Head of Terrestrial Ecology Unit of the BTO) said: "Set-aside might not have been designed as a conservation measure for farmland birds but our research has shown that it has provided a real lifeline for birds such as Skylarks, Yellowhammers and Lapwings. We can only ensure that there is continued space for these birds in modern agricultural businesses if scientists and policy makers work together to modify agri-environment schemes in ways that can deliver similar benefits."

4th July 2014