The Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) went into steep decline with the advent of industrial agriculture and the changing production regimes that accompanied large-scale market-driven cropping. Its plight demonstrates once again the vulnerability of open systems to catastrophic change. In The End of Certainty the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine describes emergent systems as at their most vital when they are pushed to far from equilibrium conditions by their interaction with other dynamic forces. All open systems, from ecosystems to cities are emergent systems.
A Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) census shows that current lark numbers in the UK are only 10% of what they were 30 years ago. In the past, cereals were planted in the spring, grown in the summer and harvested in the early fall. For reasons to do with global market forces, cereals are now planted in the fall, grown through the winter and harvested in the early summer. The winter-grown fields are much too dense in summer for walking skylarks to forage between the stems for seeds and insects.
Field ecology research has suggested that setting aside sufficiently large and numerous areas of otherwise commercially farmed fields, and reducing regrowth within these zones, can help to increase suitable nesting opportunities for skylarks and thereby improve breeding success. Studies, conducted initially by RSPB, and more extensively by the Sustainable Arable Farming for an Improved Environment Project (SAFFIE), have shown that suitable nesting sites for larks can be made during the sowing of commercial crops, by turning the seeding machine off (or lifting the drill) for a five to 10 meter stretch as the tractor goes over the ground, to briefly stop the seeds from being sown. Repeated in several areas in the same field to make about two skylark plots per acre, these “seed tables” enable breeding skylarks access to multiple foraging opportunities, even within a wider regime of poor crop mosaics and continued spraying and fertilizing operations.
The results from this large consortium-led research program (funded amongst others by the Agricultural Industries Confederation and Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd) have suggestive implications for the ongoing reformulation of rural areas. They bring the high-tech economic imperatives of the contemporary world into an expansive social and spatial continuum in which ordinary humans and delicate wild species may overlap and fuse. Skylark plots open up not only a network of physical spaces that can be appreciated by humans for their aesthetic and affective qualities, but an uncertain and fragile “golden cup” of indigenous (and sometimes introduced) species of plants, insects and small mammals. When the wheat crop grows the skylark plots become zones of low vegetation where larks can easily hunt insects and build their well-camouflaged ground nests.