Larking Around

Only recently had the trees been felled, leaving a mosaic of sandy soil, mossy grass, patches of dark heather and tangles of twigs and branches. From the main road this seemingly barren landscape sloped up to the tall dark green conifer trees that surrounded the patch on three sides. While it may seem an extreme change this is the cycle of this forest where trees are planted and felled on a rotation. Add to that the process of returning areas to more natural grassland heath and more of such open areas can be found amongst the blocks of trees. For 100 years ago this landscape was totally different. The entire area was open with grass and heather heaths, open sandy areas, low intensity arable farming and abandoned fields. Rabbits in particular were farmed in large enclosed warrens. Following the First World War the Forestry Commission began the process of afforestation, planting hundreds of hectares of Scots and then Corsican pine to provide a reserve of timber for a country whose trees had been as ravaged by the demands of war as its people. Today the whole of Thetford Forest is a patchwork of pine plantations, broadleaved trees and heath land, and is managed not only for timber, but for recreation and wildlife.

Woodlark carrying food for its chicks

Such barren looking patches of clear fell and grassy heath provide important habitat for a number of scarce breeding birds, including the woodlark. The tufts of short grass, close proximity to bare soil and good high posts for singing, are all perfect for woodlarks to set up home during the summer.

Knowing an area is good for breeding woodlark, seeing a pair there with the male’s sweet song of melancholy notes which includes a lu-lu-lu, giving the bird part of its scientific name Lullula arborea, is one thing. Finding its nest is a whole different ball game, one of patience and knowledge. Even knowing there is a nest within a few square feet in front of you, it is still hard to see, such is the excellent cryptic nature of nest and chick.

A beautiful woodlark nest

But there nestled amongst the grassy stems is a tightly weaved nest, in which four greyish brown chicks are squeezed in. What a privilege to be allowed to approach and view such a nest, which is done under strict licence. Monitoring of this species has never been more important. Since the early 1980s the range and population of woodlark in the UK has actually increased following a severe decline, but it is still comparatively rare and its breeding range restricted. Forestry plantations form a key part of this increase, but interestingly in the Forestry areas of Norfolk and Suffolk numbers of woodlark are in decline. Understanding more about the movements, breeding success and habitat use of birds in such areas is contributing to maintaining and increasing woodlark numbers by feeding into management plans for the forest. To that end this, and other nests are being monitored from egg laying to fledging, and the chicks are being colour ringed to look at movements of birds and where they subsequently return to breed.

Feed me!

On returning these four chicks to their snug nest and stepping carefully away to a safe distance, we watch as both parent birds call with a soft ‘tlewee’ to each other, beaks full of recently foraged insects, before swooping in back to the nest. We turn to leave, happy birds, happy chicks, happy people.

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