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Assessing the vegetation response to differing establishment methods of 'Skylark Plots' in winter wheat at Grange Farm, Cambridgeshire, England.

A study showing that for skylark plots to be effective in delivering invertebrate food, they are best created at the time of drilling the crop in the autumn.

Year of Publication2009

SummarySkylarks Alauda arvensis have declined by 53% across Britain since 1970, primarily in regions dominated by lowland farmland. To improve breeding opportunities in arable farmland, 'Skylark Plots' i.e. small (16-24 m2) unsown areas within winter cereal crops, were developed by the RSPB and tested in the Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment (SAFFIE) project. These plots increased the number of late summer breeding attempts and the number of chicks fledged per nest, compared to conventional crops. Skylark Plots are now included as a prescription in the Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agri-environment scheme in England. The plots are usually created by turning off the seed drill during sowing. However, take up of this prescription has been very low; pernicious weed control and technical difficulties with sowing machinery have been cited as reasons for this. To broaden the appeal to farmers, the option to create the plots through herbicide spraying to remove the germinating crop, was introduced in 2008. Data on the optimum period for spraying and differences in vegetation architecture between undrilled and sprayed skylark plots was lacking however. As evidence from the SAFFIE project showed that plots with greater vegetation cover had higher invertebrate abundance and that skylarks use plots primarily when foraging for invertebrate chick food, the present study was conducted to compare the vegetation cover in undrilled plots with plots sprayed either in December, January or February (during crop germination). The study showed that undrilled plots consistently had greater vegetation cover than sprayed plots, with the cover increasing in all plots from May to July (whilst remaining suitable for skylark use), the peak period of the skylark breeding season. Vegetation cover within sprayed plots was generally very low, particularly in February-sprayed plots. These differences in vegetation cover are likely to subsequently impact the abundance and accessibility of invertebrate prey available to skylarks during the breeding season with February-sprayed plots in particular being unsuitable for skylark foraging even in July. Our recommendation is that where possible, plots should be created at the time of sowing (turning off the seed drill) in autumn; if spraying is the favoured method of creation then this should take place no later than the end of December. Please quote this case as: Dillon I.A., Morris A.J., Bailey C.M. & Uney G. (2009) Assessing the vegetation response to differing establishment methods of 'Skylark Plots' in winter wheat at Grange Farm, Cambridgeshire, England. Conservation Evidence, 6, 89-97

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entry level stewardship schemeels
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Providing evidence to support decisions about nature conservation.

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