My walk on Box Hill the other day was lovely. The sun was shining and the slope alive with butterflies. But I felt that something was missing. There was no skylark song.
I recommend you listen to this YouTube video while reading the rest of this post. You’ll thank me for it!
Skylarks are plain-looking brown birds, smaller and duller to the eye than starlings. But to hear them sing is to have your ear filled with molten silver, and your thoughts lifted to the heavens.Patrik Åberg, XC27004. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/27004.
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Skylarks are ground nesting birds, found mostly in farmland. A few years ago we visited Lundy, which seemed to be bursting with skylarks. Elsewhere in Britain skylarks are a rarer sight. Their numbers halved in the 1990s, and continue to decline.
The main reasons behind the plummet in skylark numbers seems to be changes in farming practices. The move from spring to winter sowing of crops, overgrazing and a shift from hay making to silage have dramatically reduced the habitat available for skylarks to breed in.
I missed skylarks on Box Hill because it felt like the right sort of habitat for them. But I think there was also a sub-conscious expectation that there would be skylarks there, because of its links to skylarks in poetry and literature.
The 19th century writer George Meredith lived on Box Hill, and wrote the poem The Lark Ascending that inspired one of my favourite pieces of English music, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams lived in Dorking, the town Box Hill protects and shelters. His The Lark Ascending is said to describe the English landscape in musical form, as well as capturing something of the soaring beauty of the lark’s song. While I love this piece, I hope it isn’t the closest our next generation gets to hearing skylarks.