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Last Updated: Monday, 7 June, 2004, 23:28 GMT 00:28 UK
Skylarks helped by 'crop circles'
Crop circle
Could crop circles hold the key to reversing the drop in birdlife?
Crop circles could finally have found their niche with news that leaving fallow patches in cereal fields could help reverse a decline in UK birdlife.

Skylark breeding rose nearly 50% when small patches of cereal fields were left unsown, a two-year study found.

Now farmers are to be offered government subsidies to clear the areas as part of a conservation push.

And the trials showed that despite a rise in weeds on the unsown patches, farmers did not lose any yield.

Experts say leaving two small patches bare per hectare could reverse a 52% drop in skylark numbers since 1970.

Other species

"Crop circles once fascinated the nation; undrilled patches could be the new phenomenon, and one with a worthwhile legacy," said Dr David Gibbons, head of conservation science at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Farmers joining a new scheme in which they are paid 30 per hectare of land are likely to be asked to take part.

Environment Minister Elliot Morley said: "I hope farmers across the country will make the most of these patches so skylarks will once again become a common sight on British farmland."

Skylark and chicks
Skylark numbers have plummeted by 52% in the UK since 1970
Scientists are also looking at other aspects of nature conservation on farmland, such as grass margins and weeds as a food source.

These are expected to help other bird species which have been in decline, such as the yellowhammer and grey partridge.

The 3.6m Sustainable Arable Farming For an Improved Environment (Saffie) project received 1.5m from the government as well as cash from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Crop Protection Association and Home Grown Cereals Authority.

Last year a rare bumblebee species was found on a Saffie site.

Jonathan Tipples, chairman of Saffie and a farmer in Kent, said: "I am delighted that Saffie is demonstrating that farmers can improve the environment on their farms at no cost to themselves."

The BBC's Tom Heap
"Skylark numbers have dropped 50% in 30 years"

Cereal sowing clue to skylark slump
19 Jan 00  |  Sci/Tech
Farmland birds in crisis
12 Aug 99  |  Sci/Tech
Crop circle secrets revealed
08 Oct 02  |  England

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