Skylarks: the birds that inspired countless poets and one of Britain’s most revered music pieces

Hailed by Shelley as a ‘blithe spirit’ this brave little bird needs more farming friends, finds Ian Morton.

It was early in August, 1914. Britain had just declared war after German troops had surged into Belgium. A 42-year-old English composer on holiday in Kent was strolling on the clifftop near Margate when a musical phrase ran through his mind.

Before the succession of notes could evaporate, he took out a pad and wrote them down. As he did so, a keen boy scout on coastal patrol pounced and performed a citizen’s arrest, believing he was drawing a plan of the terrain for the benefit of the nation’s new foe.

Such was the inauspicious genesis — as later related by Ralph Vaughan Williams himself — of one of our most cherished musical passages, inspired by a George Meredith poem of 1881 and the composer’s need to express a deep concern, shared by others, over England’s rural decline.

However, The Lark Ascending would not be heard until 1920. Although much older than the average volunteer, Vaughan Williams drove ambulances in France and Greece and was later commissioned into the Royal Artillery, the thunder of the big guns on the Western Front contributing to his eventual deafness.

Poignant words from those First World War battlefields confirmed the soaring skylark as a symbol of escape from the muddy misery below. Before he was killed in 1916, John Street grieved for a lost comrade ‘fled with the lark afar/Unto the realms where the eternal are’.

Edward Thomas, who died in 1917, reminisced that ‘the skylarks are far behind that sang over the down’. Isaac Rosenberg, lost in 1918, wrote of ‘Returning we hear the larks. Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen lark music showering on our upturned list’ning faces’.

Most recalled are the lines by a fellow 1918 casualty of war, Canadian doctor Lt-Col John McRae, from In Flanders Fields, his brief poem that told of poppies and graves above which ‘the larks, still bravely singing, fly scarce heard amid the guns below’.

This little bird has a deservedly lengthy lyrical history. In The Knight’s Tale, Chaucer referred to ‘the bisy lark, messenger of day’.

In 1430, the poet monk John Lydgate offered ‘an exaltation of skylarks’ as a collective, although time has modified it to the equally triumphant ‘exultation’.

Up with the lark, that cheerful expression for early rising, was first recorded in the 1578 romance Euphues by John Lyly, the most fashionable writer of his day. His flowery style gave us the word ‘euphemism’ and influenced Shakespeare. Lyly’s other familiar contribution to the language is ‘all is fair in love and war’.

Shakespeare invoked the bird in Cymbeline (Act II, Scene 3) with ‘Hark! Hark the lark at Heaven’s gate sings’ and again in Sonnet XXIX, with ‘Like to the lark at break of day arising, from sullen earth sings hymns at Heaven’s gate’.

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing from fence pole along field

Shelley greeted the bird as ‘blithe spirit’. Wordsworth devoted two poems to extol the ‘ethereal minstrel, pilgrim of the sky’ and the ‘joy divine is that song of thine’. Tennyson declared that the lark ‘liftest a glad heart into the skies’. John Clare admired the bird hanging distantly ‘like a dust-spot in the sunny skies’. Goethe’s lark vision in Faust was ‘upwards and onwards still to urge our flight’.

No other bird invoked such widely expressed rapture or loss, in the case of Robert Graves’s young birdcatcher, who swept off his tall hat in which he kept captured larks as the squire’s daughter passed, only to release them to fly around the lovely head of the unattainable young lady.

Not all poets were romantically persuaded, however. James Northcote’s Fables of 1833 declared ‘fettered by the toils of life/Its sordid cares, its bitter strife/It feels its noble efforts vain/And sadly sinks to earth again’.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s caged lark was a symbol of the individual trapped in workaday drudgery. Emily Dickinson’s 1924 ‘Split the lark and you’ll find the music’ presented a visceral challenge.

In his 1966 poem, Ted Hughes also took a gloomy view, the bird’s ascent ‘a warning/As if the globe were uneasy’ — an uncomfortable re-echo of those First World War lines.

The Lark Ascending had an obscure launch performance by violin and piano on December 15, 1920, at the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society venue near Bristol, but 1921 saw the big inaugural concert. It was the evening of Tuesday, June 14, in the Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, then the home of the Proms. The British Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of 32-year-old Adrian Boult. The solo performer was the leading violinist of the day, Marie Hall, playing her Viotti Stradivarius. She had helped the composer to perfect the piece and he had dedicated it to her.

Could the audience at that first concert rendering really have appreciated that they were hearing a timeless classic, that those liquid notes, rising and tumbling and rising again, would be chosen a whole century later as Britain’s most cherished passage of music?

The Queen’s Hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941 and Marie’s treasured 1709 instrument went via Sotheby’s to South America in 1988, purchased anonymously for £473,000 — but The Lark Ascending speaks forever of then, and now, and of time to come.

In the breeding season, the male bird rises to 300ft or more and may sing without interruption for 20 minutes to attract a mate. He is also signalling possession of his territory. Once partnered, his song tends to last three or four minutes.

He is capable of mimicry — ornithological ears have detected elements of curlew, redshank, linnet and corn bunting in his liquid outpourings. It has been observed that he delivers his song at higher frequencies in the vicinity of wind farms, to outrival the whirr of the turbine blades.

The nest, a shallow, grass-lined depression, is fashioned by his mate, who lays three to five eggs and incubates them for 11 days. The chicks are fed by both parents and will disperse to nearby cover if threatened before they fledge after 18 to 20 days.

As do other vulnerable ground-nesting species, a pair may produce up to four broods in a season. Sadly, however, the lark is struggling with lowland habitat loss and changes in agricultural practices. A

ccording to the RSPB, on Britain’s arable farms in the early 1960s, nearly 80% of cereals were sown in the spring, providing the larks that nest in the growing crops with ideal cover, as well as leaving enough bare soil to forage for the beetles, spiders and other small quarry on which they and their chicks thrive. From May onwards, two or three broods were normal.

An exultation of skylarks against a colorful Summer sunset sky

Yet, by the 1990s, only 20% of cereal fields were spring sown. The rest were drilled in the autumn to provide higher yields and, with crops that grew taller and denser as spring advanced, the conditions discouraged nesting.

The birds were fortunate to raise a single brood and the loss of stubble through autumn ploughing further prejudiced winter survival. Lark numbers plunged steeply through the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the overall national population over six decades fell by some 60%, with the devastating loss of 1.5 million breeding pairs. Marked decline was also noted across the Continent.

Nonetheless, if farming had done the damage, farming could repair it, decided the RSPB, and an arable farm in Cambridgeshire, Hope Farm, was bought in 1999, to trial practical ways to combine cereal-crop profitability with the needs of natural inhabitants, notably of skylarks.

Accordingly, two four-square-metre (43sq ft) plots per hectare were left undrilled when planting winter wheat, which resulted in a 50% increase in skylark occupancy at Hope Farm at a crop cost of only £7 per hectare.

Skylark territories there also increased from 10 in 2000 to 32 in 2019, with the site population rising to 87. As a result, the Government was persuaded to reward English farmers for creating skylark plots under the Countryside Stewardship scheme.

‘However, farmers need a certain level of persuasion,’ stresses Hope Farm manager Georgie Bray. ‘They have accepted the principle of field margins to benefit wildflowers and hedgerow wildlife, but field centres give them the most profit. Although only a small fraction of their business is involved and, under the Countryside Stewardship scheme, they are paid double what skylark plots cost them, it’s against their instincts to take out of production land that is their most profitable.

‘It’s a mindset, it’s really hard, and there’s another problem. We may have lost more than a million of them, but skylarks are still to be seen out there in the fields. When a species is on the brink, as lapwings are, it’s easier to persuade people of the need for conservation.’

The Countryside Stewardship scheme devised by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy will be superseded, in 2024, by the three-tier Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).

Under Tier 1, ‘farmers will be paid for work that enhances the environment such as “creating or restoring habitats for wildlife”. Farmers will, therefore, be at the forefront of reversing environmental decline and tackling climate change as they reshape the future of farming in the 21st century’.

This was echoed by the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, when he told the NFU conference last year: ‘No group has more power to reverse environmental decline than our farmers.’

Miss Bray is optimistic that skylarks and other birds may reap the benefits of changes to farming. ‘We are talking to the Government, to Defra and other organisations to ensure that farmers will still get the support they need to stabilise their business as well as meeting the ELM environmental challenge.’

Up with the lark

• Our Eurasian skylark is widespread across Europe, with 10 related subspecies found from the Mediterranean to the Far East

• Skylarking or larking about originated in the 18th-century Royal Navy as a reference to off-duty frolicking. A ship’s captain’s command could include ‘all hands to dance and skylark’, issued in order to exercise, enliven and amuse a listless crew after a period of inactivity. Dance would involve the traditional hornpipe and ‘skylark’ is thought to refer to races ascending the rigging

• Many vessels have been named Skylark, but the best known was a late-19th-century craft owned by Capt Fred Collins, which was used for fishing in the mornings and pleasure trips later in the day, decked with bunting and a small band. Collins’s cry of ‘Any more for the Skylark?’ became a national expression used by leaders of groups to summon the laggardly as departure time approached

• Larks were netted for noble tables in medieval times. Together with doves and plovers, they were roasted with their innards in place, although historians have dismissed the notion that larks’ tongues, originally thought of as a sybaritic Roman delicacy, were ever on a menu in this country

• Larkspur, the July birth flower and cottage-garden classic closely related to the delphinium, was so named in Tudor times because its calyx and petals were thought to resemble the lark’s long, straight rear claw