1. A study of skylark Alauda arvensis L. breeding ecology in relation to crop type was carried out from April to August 1992 on arable land in southern England. Set-aside land was included in this comparative study.
2. Territory density averaged 0·15 ha−1. It was 2–3 times higher in fields of set-aside and grass, especially permanent pasture, than in winter and spring-sown cereals.
3. Territory size was nearly twice as large in fields of winter cereals (4·5 ha) than in other crop types (2·5 ha). Where set-aside was present on one farm, territory size in set-aside (1·7 ha) was a third lower than in cereals and grass.
4. Nesting began in set-aside and permanent pasture in April and peaked in late May. Nesting was not detected in spring barley until late May and in silage grass until early June. The density of successful nests in set-aside fields was more than double that in any of the arable crop types.
5. Average clutch size at hatching was 3·91 eggs in fields of set-aside, over 15% higher than in silage grass (3·40) and in spring barley (3·27).
6. Fledging success did not differ according to crop type, but productivity, expressed as the number of fledglings produced per hectare, was 0·50 in set-aside, 0·13 in silage grass, and 0·21 in spring barley. Nests with chicks were not found in fields of winter cereals. The causes of chick death were thought to be predation in set-aside fields, farming practices in silage grass fields, and suspected starvation in spring cereals.
7. The potentially high nesting success of skylarks in set-aside implies that sympathetic set-aside management could play an important part in reversing its decline across the European Union.