Woodlark (Lullula arborea) - Species Action Plan

Ref 2/S2 Species Action Plan 2
Plan Author: RSPB/NCC
Plan Co-ordinator: Heathland BAP Topic Group
Plan Leader: RSPB/FC
Final Draft June 2006

Action Plan Summary

Current Status

National Status

  • The woodlark was formerly found across Britain, south from Yorkshire, and in Northern Ireland, but is now largely restricted to five core areas: Devon; east Dorset/south Hampshire (including the New Forest); the Surrey/Hampshire border; Breckland; and the Suffolk coast. The number of ten km squares occupied in the breeding season decreased by 62% (from 198 to 73 ten km squares) between 1968-72 and 1988-91. However, since 1986 (when the population was estimated to be around 250 pairs), the population and range have increased with up to 620 pairs breeding in 1993, and the 1997 survey has recorded around 1,500 pairs. The nesting habitats are varied and include farmland, recently felled forestry plantations (mainly in East Anglia but also now in Sherwood, Lincoln, SE England and midland forests) and heathland in southern and eastern England and the Suffolk coast. In 1997, over 85% of territories occurred on heathland or within forestry. The recent increase in the population has largely resulted from the provision of restocked plantation habitats within the current core areas. Little is known of the woodlark's winter requirements and distribution, although there appears to be some movement southwards within England and to the continent. In Europe, the woodlark is declining in both numbers and range.
  • The woodlark is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and listed on Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive and Appendix II of the Bern Convention.

Norfolk Status

  • The 1997 national survey found between 237 and 248 pairs of woodlark in 16 ten km squares in Norfolk. All but 11 pairs were found in the Brecks: four pairs were found in the Horsford/Marsham/Cawston heathland complex; four pairs at Roydon/Dersingham; two pairs at Kelling Heath; and one pair at East Ruston Common. Since then, almost any forestry restock area of suitable size has potential to support breeding woodlark.
  • Annual surveys of Forestry Commission areas in the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecks have shown a steady population increase from 20 pairs (singing males) in 1988 to a peak of 456 pairs in 2000. However, in 2004, only 286 males were recorded throughout Thetford Forest, of which 147 were in Norfolk; this represents a decrease of 12% on 2003 and 43% on 2000.
  • Recent records from outside the Breckland stronghold include: eight pairs/singing males in north Norfolk (Kelling/Salthouse); 14 in west Norfolk (Roydon/Dersingham); and five in central Norfolk (NBM Report, 2004). However, there have been numerous reports of birds present in suitable habitat during the breeding season, so the true number is probably higher than these figures indicate (NBM Report, 2004).

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Current factors causing loss or decline in Norfolk

  • An estimated 40% of England's lowland heathland has been lost since the 1950s. This has led to a loss of feeding and nesting habitats for woodlarks.
  • Woodlarks require a mosaic of bare ground or short vegetation for feeding, and tussocks of vegetation with disturbed ground for nest sites, and up to 3 ha can be needed for a single territory. Lack of appropriate management can lead to sites becoming unsuitable for the species. Rabbits play a key role in creating bare ground and short grass (less than 5 cm) for feeding at many sites, and their decline following myxomatosis in the 1950s may have played a significant part in the decline of the woodlark.
  • Severe winter weather and, in particular, snow cover has had an adverse impact on winter survival. The hard winters of 1962/63 and 1981/82 had considerable impact on woodlark populations on the southern heathlands. The East Anglian populations do not seem to be influenced as much as the southern populations.
  • In the Brecks, the woodlark utilises restocked forestry plantations and their preferred habitat is sustained by the continuity of clear-felling and replanting. The main reason for the recent declines in the Brecks area is most probably due to the increased rate of nest predation, which has caused a 50% decline in breeding productivity over the last three decades.

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Current Action in Norfolk

  • 41.4% of the UK population (1997 survey) was found on SSSIs. This is now likely to be greater following the designation of Thetford Forest as an SSSI.
  • Woodlarks occur on a number of heathland nature reserves which are managed partly for their benefit.
  • Research has been carried out by RSPB and FC on the habitat use of woodlarks in restocked conifer plantations in Breckland. This has allowed the impact of changes in the age structure of forests to be predicted enabling Design Plans in Thetford Forest to be modified so as to maintain good numbers of woodlarks. Further research into the vegetation changes at Thetford Forest is planned.
  • Research on woodlark ecology continues to be carried out by the University of East Anglia.
  • The North Norfolk Tomorrow's Heathland Heritage (THH) initiative has restored 750ha and re-created 75ha heathland, which has assisted this species on a number of sites.
  • The Brecks THH initiative is restoring over 6,000ha and re-creating 300ha heathland in the Brecks (250ha of the re-creation occurring in Norfolk) between 2002 and 2006, again assisting woodlark on a number of sites.
  • Norfolk Wildlife Trust has purchased 110ha of afforested heathland adjacent to Grimston Warren for heathland re-creation.

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Action Plan Objectives and Targets

National

  • Achieve an increase in the number of breeding pairs in the UK, from 1,500 breeding pairs to 2,150 by 2018 (a 43% increase in 12 years).
  • Increase the range of the woodlark from 90 to 125 ten km squares, including the recolonisation of Wales and south-west England, by 2018.

Norfolk

  • Maintain as a minimum 200 breeding pairs of woodlark in Norfolk in the existing range of 16 ten km squares. (Target to be reviewed following the results of the 2006 national survey.)
  • By increasing the area of suitable habitat, increase the possible breeding and feeding areas for the woodlark, and so provide scope for further population expansion in the county.

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