Woodlark (Lullula arborea)

GenusLullula (1)
SizeLength: 15 cm (2)

The woodlark is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive and Appendix II of the Bern Convention. Protected in the UK under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (3).

The woodlark (Lullula arborea) is brown in colour, with a whitish eye stripe and an overall streaky appearance. The underparts are dull white and the tail is dark. There is a crest on the crown, but this may not always be visible. It can be distinguished from the similar skylark by its much shorter tail and smaller size. In flight the woodlark closes its wings and glides at regular intervals (2), a pattern of flight known as 'undulating flight'. The melodious song is produced during a song flight, from a perch or from the ground (2).

The breeding range extends from southern Britain and southern Fenno-Scandia to southern Europe and east to the Urals. The woodlark tends to winter in the west and south of the range. In Britain some birds remain near the breeding range in winter, but part of the population moves to the continent (4). The woodlark was once a familiar breeding bird in most counties south from Yorkshire.Today it is mainly restricted to Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Breckland, the Suffolk coast and the border between Surrey and Hampshire (4).

The woodlark uses a wide range of nesting habitats that vary depending on the region, the most important being recently felled and restocked forestry plantations (3), heathland (4) and unimproved pasture (2). They require patches of bare ground or very short vegetation interspersed with areas of long grass or heather in dry, well drained locations (2).

The nest is usually built by the female in a depression on the ground (2) amongst a tuft of long grass or heather (3). Eggs are laid between mid-March and early August; each clutch contains three to five eggs and hatching occurs about 14 days later (2). Most pairs have two or even three broods in the breeding season, as the time from laying to fledging is so short. During the breeding season the diet consists of invertebrates such as beetles, spiders, and caterpillars (3) taken from the lowest parts of plants or from moss. In winter the main food source is seeds (2).

Between 1968-72 and 1988-91 the breeding range of this species in the UK decreased by a huge 62 percent. The woodlark disappeared from Cornwall in the 1980s and ceased to breed in Wales in 1981. In 1986 the population was estimated to be just 250 pairs. The reasons for the decline include the huge decrease in the extent of England's lowland heathland (4). Since the 1950s, 40 percent of this habitat has been lost (4) due to conversion to agriculture and forestry (3). Pressure from roads and housing developments continues. Even where suitable habitat remains, if it is not managed appropriately it will not be inhabited by woodlarks. Grazing is essential in providing the mosaic of bare ground or short vegetation needed for feeding, and tussocky vegetation with bare patches needed for nesting by the woodlark. The rabbit population underwent a massive decline following the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s (4), this resulted in a reduction in woodlark numbers due to the grass growing too long (2). The UK population had increased to 620 pairs by 1993, and a further increase up to 1500 pairs had occurred by 1997 (BTO). The woodlark has returned to areas from which it had been absent for more than 25 years (2), although it is still absent from parts of its former range in Wales and south-west England.This bird is at the northern extreme of its range in Britain, and exceptionally cold winters can take a toll on populations (3).

Woodlarks currently occur on a number of heathland nature reserves, including RSPB reserves, where its needs can be met through management. Heathland management encouraged by agri-environment schemes such as Countryside Stewardship and the Breckland Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) have benefited the species (4)

The woodlark is a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP); the species Action Plan aims to increase the range and numbers of the woodlark, including the recolonisation of Wales and south-west England by 2008 (4). Main areas of work include protecting existing lowland heathland and suitable grassland habitats, creating new areas of habitat, and promoting sympathetic forestry management practices and extensive agricultural systems in the wider countryside (2). It is likely that any actions aimed at helping the woodlark will also benefit the nightjar, Caprimulgus europaeus (4).

For more information on the woodlark and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  2. RSPB (November 2001)
  3. Battern, L. A., Bibby, C. J., Clement, P., Elliott, G. D. and Porter, R.F. (1990) Red Data Birds in Britain. T & A.D. Poyser, London
  4. UK Biodiversity (November 2001)