Farm Ireland

Thursday 20 October 2016

The spectacular sight of the lark ascending

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 12/04/2016 | 02:30


One morning last week, on a sunny hillside on the farm, I got to enjoy a special treat - the sight and sounds of a skylark in full flow.

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First a joyous melody pierced the still country air. Then I saw him (it is usually a he) flying so high he was scarcely visible in the blue sky, singing all the while. I stood spellbound for uncounted minutes listening to his rich and complex warbling.

My soul was drawn heavenwards and swelled to the point of bursting. Then, without missing a note, he dropped like a stone into a nearby grass field. If ever an experience encapsulated the best of the Irish countryside in the spring, this is it.

It transported my mind to one of my favourite pieces of music, Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending, composed in 1914.

I was only vaguely aware that the composition is based on a poem of the same name, which was written in 1881 by George Meredith.

Indeed, one commentator described it as "matchless" and said "to write of such a poem is to be reminded of its incomparable aloofness from the ploddings of the journeyman critic." Having read down its 122 lines, I feel the same myself so here's a taster:

The song seraphically free

Of taint of personality,

So pure that it salutes the suns

The voice of one for millions,

In whom the millions rejoice

For giving their one spirit voice.

With the possible exception of the nightingale no songbird has been more celebrated in music or literature than the lark. In truth, his song may not be the sweetest but the overall package is unsurpassed.

Many poets have drawn particular attention to the skylark's two worlds, sky and earth, and the rapid transition from one other.

His song is often the first voice of the day, heralding a new beginning. Then there is the length and complexity of his song. The male skylark can sing more than 300 different syllables and each individual bird's song is slightly different.

As with other birds, the skylark's song serves different purposes at different times. At this time of year it may be about attracting a mate. It can also warn potential rivals that a territory is occupied or to warn off predators. However, intriguing though the suggestion may be, it is not used to attract insects.

Despite all his musical and aerial attainments, the skylark is an innocuous looking bird with streaky earth-toned plumage as befits a ground-nester. But it also means that they retain their accessibility to everyone.

I was accompanied on my walk by my ecologist pal Fi who said she had not seen a lark in some time.

Figures compiled a few years back showed farmland bird populations across Europe have almost halved since records began in 1980, from 600m to 303m. Some of the species that have declined most include the grey partridge, skylark, linnet and corn bunting. The pattern in Ireland is in line with the overall.

In the case of the lark, while intensification of production on grassland is seen as detrimental, the main cause of decline is considered to be the switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals, which has resulted in a sharp reduction in the number of chicks being successfully raised.

Autumn cereals are denser and are less suitable for nesting while food supplies over the winter is reduced by the lack stubbles, which are favourite feeding places.


However, in farmers' defence, over the past few years, those over a certain acreage have been pushed towards winter-sown crops, by the three-crop Greening measure. Could there be a lack of joined-up thinking on the matter?

Returning briefly to evocative music, I greatly enjoyed the soundtrack to the first episode of TnGs new 10-part series about Ireland's trees called Crainn na hÉireann. Presented by Manchán Magan, it airs on Tuesday night (8pm). The first episode told the story of the Scot's Pine.

It reached Ireland around 12,000 years ago and is mentioned in the Brehon Laws as a noble tree afforded the highest legal protection. It died out in the Middle Ages when the country became too wet and, being a softwood, because it was easy to fell. It was revived from the 19th century onwards with the introduction of Scottish stock.

I am especially keen to see episode six on the Hawthorn and Ash, which I expect will give an update on the new threat posed to our beautiful ash by the emerald ash borer beetle.

Indo Farming


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