Monday, 16 July 2007

Dramatic Woodlark spread could be limited

The good news, that Woodlark numbers in the UK have risen dramatically, is tempered by the fear that suitable habitat might not be available in the future.

The latest survey of Woodlarks, the first for 10 years, shows an increase in numbers by 89 per cent, with an estimated 3,083 breeding pairs in England and one pair in Wales. Improved lowland heathland habitat, and better management of forestry plantations have all helped bring about this increase.

While lowland heaths and forestry plantations still form the Woodlark's stronghold, many pairs can now be found breeding on farmland, where they favour set-aside land. However, changes to support for farmers, dictated by Europe, could mean the loss of set-aside and this could limit the spread of Woodlarks unless they have alternatives, according to the RSPB.

Simon Wotton, research biologist at the RSPB, said: “About 21 per cent of the birds we surveyed were on farmland and other grassland habitats, of which about 7 per cent was set-aside. It seems Woodlarks are moving on to this land from nearby heaths and from forest plantations.”

Sue Armstrong-Brown, the RSPB’s head of countryside conservation, said: “Birds like the Woodlark are trying hard to adapt to the new ways of managing the countryside and we must not sabotage their recovery. We must increase our efforts to restore and manage lowland heaths to create suitable conditions for the Woodlark and also ensure that the management of forestry plantations provides suitable breeding habitat.”

Greg Conway, Research Ecologist at the BTO, who organised the survey said:"It is marvellous to see that the breeding population has almost doubled since 1997 and the range has increased considerably, with large leaps to the west and north. This survey would not have been possible without the support of hundreds of birdwatchers, to whom we are all extremely grateful".

The Woodlark survey was carried out by the BTO, RSPB, Natural England and the Forestry Commission.

Photo: Woodlark by Chris Gomersall (RSPB Images)