It’s more than a pretty voice! A nature writer explains the importance of songbirds as skylark numbers fall

  • The numbers of Skylarks have fallen by 1.5 million pairs in the past 25 years 
  • New book reveals how deeply ingrained the bird is in our national consciousness
  • Skylarks were heard singing during the pauses in the shelling at Battle of the Somme


by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday £9.99, 112 pp)

It is the bird that refused budge and continued singing in the midst of some of the most bloody fighting the world has ever witnessed.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1916, skylarks were heard singing in the midst of the shelling. Saki, Sergeant H. H. Munro better known as Saki wrote about his surprise at seeing skylarks nesting within the trenches.

He admired how the skylark ‘could carry its insouciance to the length of attempting to rear a brood in that desolate wreckage of shattered clods and gaping shell-holes’.

In a new book, award-winning nature writer John Lewis-Stempel, reveals how deeply ingrained skylarks are in our national consciousness (file image)

John Lewis-Stempel is a bestselling nature writer who reveals the deep-rootedness of skylarks in our national consciousness in a new book (file image).

The number of pairs has fallen by 1.5 million in the last 25 year. This book, which is small and elegant, shows how deeply this beautiful bird is ingrained in our national consciousness.

Alauda arvensis, the skylark, is a primarily farmland bird. This songbird, which can produce up to three broods per year, is one of very few songbirds that nest on open land. Both males and women are dedicated parents. Its plumage, aside from the nightingale and other details, is very unremarkable. Yet, poets from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes have written more about this bird.

The skylark’s unique song, which it sings while in flight, is what makes it so magical. They can sing for up half an hour and produce different notes depending on whether they’re ascending or descending.

It’s usually the males who sing to attract females, defend their territory or warn off predators.

THE SOARING LIFE OF THE LARK by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday £9.99, 112 pp)

THE SOARING LIFE OF THE LARK by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday £9.99, 112 pp)

Skylarks were so numerous before the 20th century that the sky would turn dark when they moved. They were easy to catch because of their ground-nesting habits, so the Victorians killed them in large numbers. Larks were baked, roasted and placed in aspic. The feathers of the birds were dyed to decorate hats.

Intensive farming has been a disaster in the second half 20th century for them, denying them the habitat they need.

Yet the solution to the skylark’s decline could be surprisingly simple. John Lewis-Stempel, a farmer and award-winning nature writer, believes that farmers could stop sowing winter cereals on small areas of their fields to give the birds a nesting spot.

The RSPB has found that these ‘skylark plots’ can increase bird numbers by 50 per cent in a decade.

The thought of this ‘friendly, perky-looking little bird’ dying out is unbearable: as Lewis-Stempel says, its song is ‘the soundtrack of the British countryside.’