During a normal winter at Thriplow the 72 year-old chimney-sweep William Stockbridge could expect to snare a few songbirds for his cooking pot. This was not a normal winter, though. Severe blizzards over the Baltic were having a strange effect on counties in the east of England. As well as bitingly cold weather, a deep cyclone over Sweden was driving millions of skylarks across the North Sea. It had happened once before in living memory and now again, in 1912, the birds were settling in huge numbers on the open fields and heathland from Duxford to Baldock, scrabbling for whatever food they could find in the hard frost. In London larks were considered a culinary delicacy, a dish that the rising middle-classes should aspire to serve at their dinner parties (as promoted by Mrs Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management).
Sensing a profit, locals now flocked to harvest the hungry birds. When the sun had set, pairs of men, one at each end of a thirty foot trammel net would trawl the fields, dropping the net suddenly as the frightened birds flew up into it. The national newspapers were soon reporting that in one week alone 30,000 dead birds (one and a half tons) were sent to London by train from Royston.
Stockbridge, the only man prepared to talk about the slaughter, was dubbed ‘the doyen of lark-snarers’ and held up to both criticism and ridicule. After investigation by the Royston Crow, it was later admitted in Parliament that the papers had got it wrong and the numbers caught, though staggering, were far fewer than had been initially claimed. It took a further ten years for the RSPB to persuade Harrods to stop stocking skylarks.
Due to changes in crops and farming methods over the last century there has been a drastic decline in larks but they can still regularly be heard warbling over Therfield Heath.
A letter from the Reverend JP Bacon-Phillips of Crowhurst printed in the London Daily News of 5 February 1912, commented on the slaughter talked of his ‘loathing’ and how the ‘poor little larks in a semi-starving condition are lured to the barbarian’s net for food.’
On 19 March, the Evening Post tracked down William Stockbridge and asked him for his response.
“Tell the ‘pa’son’ that he didn’t know what he was talking about. How often is he up in the morning early enough to hear the larks sing, I should like to know? Larks is a lot more mischievous than other birds. How’d the pa’son like it if he had swarms of ’em eating up his wheat and young crops? They’s wicked, mischievous birds—wonderfully mischievous.
“I likes to hear ’em sing all right,” he admitted, “but there’s other things to think about. Snaring larks has put many a shilling into the pocket of a poor man when he wanted the money badly. It’s only when the snow is on the ground that you get a chance of catching ’em, sad however many you kill there always seems plenty left. Why, I mind snaring larks this 40 year — since we come to Thriplow, and I never saw anything wrong in it. There’s a lad next door who got 26 dozen, and earned 30s the other day. They was getting Is 7d a dozen for ’em from London here last week; in London, of course, they sold at more than that. I’ve had as much as half-a-crown a dozen. I’ve earned £1 a day lark-snaring, easy.”
Mr. Stockbridge exhibited one of his snares which are of the kind most commonly adopted. Dangling from a stretch of string are a series of slip-knots in strong but almost invisible horsehair. The snare is set and left all the day upon the whitened ground, with oats scattered invitingly for the hard-pressed, hungry birds. There is no hope for any lark that, avoiding the string, touches one of the slipknots. Every movement tightens the grip, generally upon the leg, though sometimes around the neck— which latter misfortune is the more merciful for the bird. In the evening the snarers come out to wring necks, count up the spoils, and pack for market; and until the snarers come the doomed songsters can only wriggle in agonised helplessness.
With the snow on the ground there is no difficulty whatever in tempting them. “I’ve seen patches of ground absolutely black with larks,” Mr. Stockbridge said, “and on a cold, hungry day, when the larks are willing to risk anything for a bite, whole families come out to disentagle and gather up the spoils. More ambitious lark-destroyers go forth with big nets affixed to long poles, and with these the destruction at times is immense.”