Spring has made a hesitant start of the heath; the cold winter soil takes time to waken. There are some reliable early‐birds, such as woodlark, which at first sight is an insignificant little‐brown‐job whose name defies its association with the open country. Ever since the days have lengthened there have been woodlark establishing breeding territories on the heath. The male bird displays over the broken heather within which the nest is just a modest scrape. The displays of woodlark have long attracted naturalists and poets for their beauty. In the eighteen century, the curate Gilbert White of Selborne described the bird as ‘hanging, poised in the air'. A few years later the poet John Clare admired how the woodlark ‘…sings as it descends… flying in a slanting direction to the ground and rises and falls in alternate scotches… which prolongs its song’ a liquid fluting trill of doubled‐up notes.
Many heathland birds nest on or near the ground, which is unsurprising as heathland habitats are mostly open and treeless. On wetter ground, there may be wading birds that spent the winter on the coast but now look for somewhere quiet to lay their eggs. It is still possible to hear the haunting call of curlews over the valley bogs and the pee‐witting of lapwing on the wetter heaths. The drumming of breeding Snipe has become a thing of the past as our heathlands decline in quality and are ever-pressed to accommodate our need for green spaces to enjoy.
Historically, heathland birds have done well by evolving to nest on the ground. In the modern age, our open habitats have shrunk as farming, forestry and urban growth has fragmented them. The parcels that are left are now pressurised by people seeking fresh air and exercise. We are in danger of loving such places to death. So, if you visit a heath this spring, do think of the birds that may be concealed close‐by the path, please stick to the main tracks and keep your dog close‐by you. The reward for such simple courtesies is the knowledge that the birds will safely raise their families, and that our families will continue to enjoy the thrill of the songs of wild places into the future.
Clive's book, 'Heathland', is available to buy online.