The bird book on my shelf describes the skylark as a, ‘rather plain brown lark with an inconspicuous crest’ and goes on to tell me that the birds sing all year – often before dawn, but the song is rarely heard in mid winter.

 Skylarks were once common in fields close to my house, on the edge of a small and popular Bedfordshire town.  However,  this land was always ripe for development and the open field is now replaced by neat houses and small gardens.  Gone is the rough grazing, the green space for dog walkers, and the short-cut to local school.  Gone too are the skylarks.

Image by Ricard Revels ( Alauda arvensis)

Or perhaps not.  Last spring the footpaths across arable land to the next village was alive with the song of larks.  Many arable farmers nearby have carefully left small unsown squares in the midst of the  winter wheat which allow ground nesting birds cover, when nesting in the spring.  In the first lockdown of 2020 the larks and their tumbling song became a welcome signal that nature was still with us, as all else around us changed.  So, this personal tale of the skylarks became  the germ of an idea for a book now completed and published by Eventispress  in January.

How to Value a Skylark : The Countryside in a Time of  Change looks at  the rapidly changing landscapes across Britain, and in non-technical language unravels the pressures which the countryside is presently facing and how this may impact on what we see in the next decade.  At the heart of this the book is a question:

What do we Expect from our Countryside?

As some 70 percent of the land of Britain is farmed in some way, agriculture is at the centre of  most countryside change.  Pressure and worry has been mounting for farmers and land managers as concern grows over the changes to farms subsidy payments.  Now well underway by 2028 the old arrangements where funding is matched to the area of land farmed – known as the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) – will disappear. The new subsidy arrangements will follow  Government aspirations to encourage a transition the the spending of,  Public Funds for Public Goods.  This  then gives the taxpayer a say in how money  is spent and what we expect from the land.  Do we know what is best for land in Britain?

Will this mean more access and more space for nature to thrive, and how will this be paid for?  These are the  questions which will surface during the next decade. All this is taking palace against the background of global warming, with mounting evidence that the pace is accelerating and the time and space for  substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions narrowing all the time .

Other trends are also beginning to make an impact such as the growing acceptance of plant based diets, which has moved beyond simply a fashion statement to become a serious economic factor.   As the majority of land in Britain is  best used for livestock production and quality meat from the hills is a specialist product, this will have a marked impact. The marginal land across Britain, best suited to meat production may need to change.  How then can these landscapes be maintained without the drystone dykers and shepherds on the fells. 

There seems to be a growing understanding that the next decade will offer opportunities to do things in a different way.  And for every question there will be a many voices offering solutions .  How far can we push the ideas of re-wilding landscapes for example. and allowing nature to restore the land?  Can we legitimately expect greater access to the countryside and how can this be squared with ideas of trespass and private ownership?  The restrictions of 2020 have dragged these questions into the arena of public debate.  The outdoors and nature have become a place of solace in a time of woe.

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A horse rider on a wide bridle way with ample space for walkers and nesting birds in the hedge and along the field margin, is perhaps best practice allowing a mix of cropping, access. and  with space for wildlife – including skylarks

In, How to Value a Skylark, all these issues are discussed in a non-technical way with illustrations and examples drawn from across Britain. The book is available from the author, Eventispress, on-line bookshops and on Amazon.

Meanwhile as spring approaches we hold our breath and listen for the first skylarks song