The Wren Wildlife Group, London Wildlife Trust and Wild Wanstead have compiled a list of 10 species at risk of local extinction. In the sixth of a series of articles looking at each species in turn, Alex Deverill reflects on Wanstead’s skylarks
August marks the end of the breeding season for skylarks. Wanstead Flats is home to the only breeding population of these birds in inner London, and this year has seen the use of temporary fencing to stop their nest areas from being disturbed by people and dogs. Initiatives like these are essential if we are to prevent the extinction of skylarks locally – and in the UK more generally.
Skylarks are on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. In the UK, the population halved during the 1990s and is still declining. They are a victim of modern intensive farming. Cereals are now sown in autumn, not spring, which has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of chicks raised each year. Skylark numbers are also thought to have been affected by increased use of insecticides and weedkillers (contributing to insect declines), intensification of grazing on grasslands, and the switch from hay to silage, which results in many nests being destroyed by cutting machinery. In their preferred habitat of farmland, numbers crashed by 75% between 1972 and 1996. This makes the survival of the skylarks on Wanstead Flats even more important. In the absence of arable fields locally, skylarks construct their nests on the ground in areas of unmown grass; they also feed on areas of mown grass, such as football pitches.
Skylarks are streaky brown birds with a crest. Their song has inspired many musical and literary works. Male skylarks can be spotted rising almost vertically from the ground before hovering effortlessly and singing at great height. Their song flights can last for up to an hour and the birds can reach 300m before descending.
Despite their aerial activities, skylarks nest on the ground, laying three to four eggs. The nest is a hollow, lined with leaves, grasses and hair. The eggs are incubated for 11 days. The parents feed the chicks on insects for their first week, then gradually introduce small quantities of shoots and seeds for a mixed diet. Chicks become independent after only two weeks, but skylarks need two to three broods of young each year to maintain populations.
How to help:
Being able to rear their chicks in peace is essential if Wanstead’s skylarks are to survive, so please support the ring-fenced areas on the Flats, always stick to the paths and keep dogs on a lead where indicated.
Oppose plans that would create increased disturbance on Wanstead Flats – this would harm the skylarks and many other creatures that rely on this important area of wild land.
For more information about the 10 species under threat of extinction in Wanstead, visit wnstd.com/the10