Hares and Skylarks as Indicators of Environmentally Sensitive Farming on the South Downs

Wakeham-Dawson, Andrew (1995). Hares and Skylarks as Indicators of Environmentally Sensitive Farming on the South Downs. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000fb7b

Abstract

Grants to farmers are increasingly being directed towards encouraging environmentally sensitive farming practices. This is particularly true in areas that are valued for their landscape and wildlife, such as the chalk grasslands of the South Downs. If such grants are to maintain and improve environmental conditions that are suitable for wildlife, the outcomes need to be monitored regularly. Ideally the form of monitoring should be simple and inexpensive to carry out, to allow farmers to assess for themselves their farms' suitability for wildlife and amend their farming practices accordingly. The current research identified and investigated the potential of hares and skylarks, two easily identified wildlife species which are typical of chalk grassland habitats, as indicators of the quality of farmland for wildlife on the South Downs. Hares and skylarks are familiar species to most farmers and there is some concern among conservationists that the numbers of both species are declining.

The research has shown that both species can be counted without much difficulty. Hare numbers are highest on farms where fox control is practised, and this can over-ride the effects of other factors. When the effect of predator control is allowed for in the analysis, hares appear to favour farms where there is a wide diversity of habitat types. The breeding density of skylarks is determined by more localised environmental factors on areas of farms, such as vegetation height and grazing pressure. Both hares and skylarks can benefit from the introduction of rotational set-aside, but ESA grassland is not favoured by hares or skylarks if grazed very short.

The research suggests that monitoring hares and skylarks could be a valuable aid in assessing the effects of environmentally sensitive farming policy on downland wildlife.

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