|Woodlark song raises plight of threatened birds
CD single promotes
awareness of RSPB work for ‘red list’ species
Birds have been celebrated in poetry and music for centuries,
but a Somerset-based musician and ‘voice of the Rugby World
Cup’, Belinda Evans have joined forces to combine the two
art forms - in celebration of a rare bird that is being nationally
surveyed for the first time in nearly a decade.
Sean O’Leary’s musical adaptation of the Gerard Manley
Hopkins poem about the woodlark is also supporting the work of
the RSPB, by raising the profile of the problems faced by the
Sean recorded an album of Hopkins’ poems, entitled ‘The
Alchemist’, with soprano singer Belinda Evans in 2005, but
they decided to release The Woodlark as a single to coincide with
this year’s national survey of the birds – and on
the poet’s birthday 28 July.
Sean said: ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins was an acute observer
of the natural world, as poet and priest he saw God reflected
in the beauty of his creation and sought to celebrate this through
his poems. By setting them to music, I hope to bring them to a
new audience and with it promote Hopkins’ passion for nature’
The poem is an onomatopoeic homage to the woodlark, a fact born
out by Sean’s use of the birds’ actual song as part
of his musical interpretation of the piece. The woodlark’s
song was also the most popular track on a British Library sound
archive Vanishing Wildlife CD earlier this year.
Woodlarks are a ground-nesting bird that breeds on open heathland
and farmland, but they have also adapted to breed in young forestry
plantations. They need areas with short grass where they can feed
on insects, but in winter will also feed the seeds of grasses
and stubbles - the stems of cereal crops left behind after harvesting.
The Government agreed a Biodiversity Action Plan for the species
in 1998, which means it backs attempts to conserve the birds and
reach certain targets to safeguard its future. The plan for woodlarks
includes maintaining a population of at least 1,500 breeding pairs,
but with luck increasing their numbers as well as and enlarging
their range – both to be achieved by 2008.
Despite a five-fold increase in the population between 1986 and
1997, woodlarks are still ‘red listed’ as a bird of
conservation concern because of previous historical declines.
Belinda said: ‘Hopkins would have been concerned about
what has happened to the woodlark and that’s one of the
reasons we wanted to do something to support the work of the RSPB,
which is actively doing something to try to reverse the decline
in woodlarks along with many other threatened birds.’
In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ day, woodlarks were common in
Wales and England but by the end of the 19th century, the species
was in trouble and in some parts of the South West of England
had been wiped out, ironically because of their song. So-called
‘bird catchers’ could command a high price for males
in good voice.
Numbers of woodlarks increased again from the 1920s, peaking
in the mid 1950s but decreasing again from then on, a fact exacerbated
by the harsh winter of 1962/3.
Contemporarily, loss and deterioration of dry grassland and heaths
has contributed to the birds’ decline across Europe. Intensive
farming practices may also have affected the species, by reducing
food available to woodlarks.
RSPB farmland conservation adviser, Kevin Rylands, said: ‘There’s
a line in the poem about how the skylark is better known than
the woodlark and even though woodlark numbers have increased it
still holds true today. But we are working with farmers and landowners
to provide suitable habitat to benefit woodlarks through the Government’s
Environmental Stewardship scheme – which offers grants for
environmentally friendly land management.’
He added: ‘Hopefully Sean and Belinda’s song will
help spread the word, not just about woodlarks but all the other
species that need help, especially if the single becomes popular
The Woodlark CD single is available from 28 July can be ordered,
for £2.95, from www.thewoodlark.co.uk
J-peg pictures of woodlarks and of Sean O’Leary and Belinda
Evans are available for use free of charge (providing they are
only used in connection with this story) by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
or contacting her on the number below.
Review copies of The Woodlark CD single and MP3 clips of the
track are also available.
1. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote his poem about the
woodlark in 1876. The opening lines of the poem (reproduced below),
sung by Belinda Evans, feature as a catchy chorus in the song
version of the piece.
“Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can that be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of song-strain.”
2. Sean O’Leary was born a long time ago in Liverpool.
He only recently discovered Hopkins’ work and was moved
and inspired to put most of his poems to music. His first collection
of these songs, a double album called ‘The Alchemist’,
(ISBN 0-9550649-0-2), was published in July 2005. It is available
from www.gerardmanleyhopkins.net. Hopkins’ poems can also
be found on this site.
3. Belinda Evans grew up in Somerset and is best known as the
voice of the Rugby World Cup, as she sang the national anthem
to millions of viewers at the start of every England game. She
first collaborated with Sean whilst studying for her A-levels
and the pair have enjoyed music making ever since. A classically
trained singer who works regularly in the fields of opera, jazz
and musical theatre, Belinda says she loves the improvisation
and sense of freedom that Sean's compositions allow.
4. There are approximately 1,000,000 pairs of skylarks compared
to around 1,500 pairs of woodlarks in the UK. In 1986, a survey
of woodlarks found just 240 pairs, so the bird appears to have
made something of a comeback since then. Information about the
conservation status of the woodlark and the skylark can be found
5. A national survey of woodlarks has been carried out this year,
the aim of which is to provide up-to-date figures on the species
to determine how well the birds are doing in conservation terms.
Despite an increase in their numbers uncovered by the last survey
in 1996, they are only found in a few places. Breeding birds are
found mainly in eastern and southern England - the New Forest,
Surrey/Berkshire heaths, Breckland and some Suffolk heaths are
the best areas to find them. Birds that remain in winter are usually
found in Hampshire, west Surrey and Devon, and in recent years
some wintering flocks have been found in East Anglia.