Songs in the sky

A minor eccentricity of my life beside the sea is occasionally to walk the strand with my eyes shut for a couple of hundred meandering…

A minor eccentricity of my life beside the sea is occasionally to walk the strand with my eyes shut for a couple of hundred meandering paces: a child's celebration of space and solitude. Along with the vermilion blaze of sun beyond my eyelids and the shocking crash of surf to warn me off my habitual swerve to the right, I find myself suddenly tuning in to the spring's first skylarks, soaring above the dunes.

"There was no bird, only a singing,/Up in the glory, climbing and ringing" - Katherine Tynan's lines, in Yeats's Ireland. Now that skylarks have joined yellowhammers and linnets in the retreat of once-common farmland birds, it is acceptable to put them in poems again. The opening of Ted Hughes's long, tense exploration of "Skylarks" seems apt: "The lark begins to go up/Like a warning/As if the globe were uneasy . . ."

The Romantics saw the ascent of the lark as liberating and ecstatic; Hughes could see only a frenzied, sacrificial effort: "Its feathers thrash, its heart must be drumming like a motor/As if it were too late, too late . . ."

Ornithology, like any other science, starts by measuring anything it can. "As the singer mounts up to heights between 10 and 20 metres," wrote Eric Simms in British Larks, Pipits and Wagtails, (in the Collins New Naturalist series), "he bursts into song and embarks on a steep, slowly spiralling ascent with beating wings and tail spread out. The circling flight may take the singer to heights of from 20 to l00 metres. With wings fluttering at a rate from 10 to 12 beats a second, the skylark hovers or circles above the territory . . ." As for the song ("Squealing and gibbering and cursing," as Hughes chose to hear), ornithologists have rushed to put figures on it - an average duration of 3.4 minutes during occupation of a territory; 2.4 minutes during incubation of the first clutch; 1.3 during feeding of the first brood - and so on through the season. The man who measured all that was a Prof Delius - no relation, I hope, to one of my favourite composers.


We are blessed with skylarks in Thallabawn, especially in the damp, level meadows that have covered the sand behind the dunes. As I walk the last stretch of the boreen to the strand, a lark will sometimes precede me from one fence-post to another, or let me watch as he sings, crest lifted, for some immanent and immaterial length of time.

Through my city childhood in Sussex, the skylark was synonymous with open countryside, spiralling up against big, fleecy clouds above the rolling cornfields of the South Downs. That is typically the landscape where larks are now vanishing - three-quarters of them gone in a mere three decades.

One big reason, says the RSPB, is the switch in sowing cereals, from spring to autumn. The stubbles left after the harvest used to feed larks (and other birds) with seeds, and give shelter through the winter. Now, the ploughs are out in autumn and by spring the cereals are leaping ahead, covering the land too densely to let the skylarks nest (they evolved on the steppes and want a clear view all round).

This has been happening in Ireland, too. Barley has been concentrating into big, specialist farms in the east and south, and these are now virtually-blank areas on the map of breeding skylarks, along with the intensive cattle country of closely-managed ryegrass pasture. The general loss of arable land, especially from small-farm Ireland, is also bad news for Alauda arvensis.

Looking at the last map of the skylark's breeding density, compiled a decade ago, the richest nesting areas in Ireland were the bogs and their farmland margins in northwest Mayo, the Roscommon uplands, the Burren and coastal Clare, the eastern hills, the tips of western and northern headlands and the coastal dune systems.

Bogs and grassy uplands are a completely different form of "open countryside" to the one usually imagined for the lark (or, indeed, for its fellow-aerialist the meadow pipit, which has always outnumbered it there). Both birds must now be in retreat from the worst deserts of overgrazed common age on the western hills, and in the coastal lowlands building and leisure development is often biting into their habitat.

Exactly how all the pressures are hitting the skylark's numbers we shall begin to see from long-term results of the Countryside Bird Survey, carried out by BirdWatch Ireland volunteers and Duchas rangers. In April it heads into its third spring of recording birds seen or heard on morning patrols through the same patch of countryside.

So far, the skylark has been showing up in about half the squares sampled, which makes it just a little less widespread than the greenfinch and the great tit. The survey's progress will be reviewed at the all-Ireland bird conference, focused on farmland birds, to be held in the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, next weekend.

Can you imagine wanting to shoot a skylark? Yet there it is, along with the thrushes, on the legal-quarry list of hunters in France. Two years ago, their very powerful lobby procured a hunting season lasting up to seven-and-a-half months, from as early as mid-July to the end of February. It's quite illegal under the EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds and the hunters have been calling for the Directive to be weakened to allow their season to stand.

The extra month of February means birds can be shot when they are migrating through France to breed further north. A petition to resist this has collected more than two million signatures from within the EU member states - well over half of them, indeed, from within France itself. It was presented to the president of the European Parliament by the head of Birdlife International earlier this month.

The French go overboard on hunting, the Irish throw rubbish round the countryside: I don't know which to despair of more. Well, I do, actually.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author