I wrote a little about skylarks here recently – and how numbers had quadrupled at the RSPB’s Hope Farm over the last 12 years, increasing from 10 pairs in 2000 to the low 40s in recent years).
The story of how skylarks increased is quite well known – it’s done by leaving small bare patches of land in winter wheat fields – skylark patches.
The efficacy of this method was tested in a large research project many years ago and the science persuaded government to allow skylark patches to be an option in the Entry Level Stewardship scheme open to all farmers in England. As I travel the country I keep an eye open for skylark patches, and I do occasionally see them from a train or in a Cotswold field as I travel to the races at Cheltenham, but they seem about as rare as breeding lapwings in southern England.
This is disappointing as skylark patches work and farmers can get paid for them! It’s not as though they are a secret – the Hope Farm report has a photo of Chris Bailey (a former farm manager of Hope Farm), myself and NFU President Peter Kendall standing in a skylark patch at Hope Farm with Peter’s arms crossed across his chest looking as though he wasn’t really listening. I wonder whether Peter has yet got round to putting a few skylark patches in his own hectares of wheat? He certainly hasn’t been seen or heard actively promoting them to his fellow arable farmers very much.
I was interested in some of the details on skylark patches in the Hope Farm report. An analysis by Smiths Gore and the RSPB of the economics of skylark patches is informative. The gross margin (income minus variable costs) of 100 skylark patches is £441 if they are produced by simply not drilling the small areas with wheat – obviously that’s about £4 per patch. If you choose to produce the same number of patches by spraying them out (with herbicide) later in the year it’s more work and your gross margin falls to £283 but clearly you are still in profit. How does this compare with not doing any of that and just sowing a little more wheat? The gross margin for not bothering is £167. In other words, you make more money by saving skylarks on a tiny part of your cropped area than you do by growing food. Why don’t more farmers do this?
There are probably many reasons why few farmers have adopted skylark plots or patches but you’d have to say that between them the RSPB and Defra have removed most of the good reasons for not bothering. They are proved to work and they are proved to be profitable – what’s not to like?
I think that one psychological problem is that they look as though they occupy more of the field than they actually do! When I saw in the Hope Farm report that 100 skylark patches occupy just 0.16ha I looked at that figure and wondered whether it was right. So each patch is 0.0016ha? That seems tiny – and it is, but it is right.
Each skylark patch is about four metres, squared. And a hectare, for those who may still be trapped in imperial units, is 1oom, squared. So a skylark patch is 1/25th times 1/25th of a hectare which is about 1/600th which is indeed 0.0016ha. A tiny area, for which you get paid more than wheat and you deliver more skylarks to the world too.
Let’s have some more please.
And don’t you just love the design of this Hope Farm mug by Mary Barnaville from The Howard of Effingham School in Surrey? Mary won a Wildlife Explorers competition to design the new Hope Farm mug.