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5 Mar 2021

A battle for survival on Culloden Moor

Written by Katey Boal, Visitor Services Manager Engagement, Culloden
A close-up of a skylark standing in a grassy field. It has pale, golden brown feathers with a cream tummy. It has a raised crest on top of its head.
A skylark
This spring, there is a battle for survival taking place on Culloden Moor – not the story of the Jacobites this time, but our beautiful skylarks. Our grassland is managed to allow for the skylarks’ nesting season, and we ask dog walkers to keep their dogs on a lead when near the nesting sites.

Skylarks are native British birds and are well known for their song and song flight. Their song is so beautiful that it has inspired poets including George Meredith and Siegfried Sassoon. Their distinctive song flight inspired Ralph Vaughan Williams to create his evocative piece of music ‘The Lark Ascending’. But skylarks have suffered a dramatic and alarming decline in numbers in recent years and now appear on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Skylarks make their home in the grassy habitat at Culloden Battlefield. They build their nests on the ground, protected amongst the tall grass and meadow flowers. Some people might consider skylarks plain, but they’re wonderfully adapted for their grassland environment and are perfectly camouflaged to make their home amongst moorland, meadows, heath and grassland. Males and females look similar: both are sandy brown, with a lighter belly and darker streaks along their feathers. They have pale edges to their wings and white outer tail feathers, and a grey brown beak. Skylarks are 16–18cm long and have a wingspan that runs between 30–36 cm. To give you a sense of its size, you could hold a skylark nestled in your hand.

But, don’t underestimate this songbird! It’s when it’s in flight and singing that it reveals its spectacular nature. The skylark song is that of open spaces, full of trills and whistles as it hovers and performs amazing aerial displays. The males are very territorial – they dance through the sky, rising vertically before diving and dipping across the grassland, driving off competition with their athletic prowess and displaying their suitability as a mate.

It’s likely that you’ll hear a skylark before you see one flitting and fluttering across the path. Please keep your dog on a lead when you hear or see these acrobatic artists. During the spring, skylarks are particularly vulnerable. Their nests in grass-lined hollows across the moor can be easily disturbed or significantly damaged by a dog or person running across.

Long grass sways in the wind on a large empty moor. A line of trees stand in the background with hills in the distance.
Culloden Moor makes an ideal nesting habitat for skylarks.

In order to maintain populations, skylarks need to produce 2–3 clutches a year. The female will lay between 2–6 eggs and will incubate them for up to 11 days. It then takes both parents to bring food back to the nest, where the chicks feast on insects and seeds. Modern farming practices have reduced the habitats viable for skylarks to nest and raise their young. Crops are too dense for nests to be built in, or sown too late in the year to accommodate their breeding season. In desperation, skylarks will attempt to nest in silage fields, but they’re mown too frequently and often the nests are destroyed. This is a real cause for concern: skylark numbers have declined by 75% between 1972 and 1996 – a staggering figure.

However, the skylark story doesn’t have to be a tragedy. In areas across the UK where skylarks are protected, we can see positive impacts on their decline. Some farmers are leaving ‘skylark plots’: areas of 4–16m² where they plant less densely and thereby create suitable habitats for skylarks. Studies in both the UK and Denmark have shown that this practice can make a real difference to local populations.

You, too, can play a part in protecting skylarks. Culloden Moor is the perfect habitat for these birds, provided they are left undisturbed. The grassland is carefully managed to allow for their nesting season, and there are plenty of insects and grains to feed their young. The real problem for these wee birds at Culloden is disturbance by dogs off the lead. We can reduce the risk by asking visitors to be responsible with their animals.

So, while you’re enjoying a stroll around the battlefield, please remember the battle the skylarks are fighting for survival, and keep your dogs on a lead.

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