How you can help save the Turtle Dove

PUBLISHED: 15:32 22 November 2013 | UPDATED: 15:32 22 November 2013

Turtle dove, Streptopelia turtur

Turtle dove, Streptopelia turtur

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You can help to ensure we see and hear a few more than that of these birds nesting and feeding in our gardens, hedgerows and farms.

On the face of it, turtle doves seem to have the right idea. They spend summer here and across the warmer parts of Europe, raising their young, and then as the weather changes head to Africa for a lengthy sunshine break.

Once a common sight across farmland, they have since faced a sharp decline in numbers. The most recent figures show that the population in the south east has fallen by 86 per cent since 1994 alone.

Easily distinguished from species such as collared dove or wood pigeon by their diminutive size, striking chestnut and black mottled colouring on the wings and black and white ‘bar-code’ like patch on the neck, turtle doves are however, more often heard than seen. Their distinctive, gentle, purring song has long been a characteristic sound of summer.

The species no longer breeds in Wales and there are fears it could soon disappear as a breeding bird in England too, with only a few strongholds remaining in south east England and East Anglia.

Hayley New, RSPB Agricultural Projects Officer for the south east says: “Turtle dove numbers are reaching drastically low levels; the prospect of losing this beautiful bird from our shores is becoming increasingly real. They were once widespread but have suffered a massive decline here in the last few decades alone. A reduction in breeding attempts from up to four per year to just one has had a huge impact on the population numbers.”

In response to the turtle dove’s plight, conservationists embarked on an urgent mission to save one of the UK’s most threatened birds from extinction. Operation Turtle Dove was launched in 2012 by the RSPB, leading sustainable farming specialists Conservation Grade and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust in Norfolk with support from Natural England; it is a three-year project to reverse the decline of one of England’s best-loved farmland birds.

The cause of the population crash is not fully understood and research is ongoing into factors affecting the species during their time spent outside the UK. When they arrive in the UK to breed each spring however, they depend on small seeds from wild plants to get into breeding condition and changes in farming practices mean these plants are now scarce in our countryside.

To help reverse the fortunes of the turtle dove, the RSPB is calling on landowners in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire to consider establishing pollen and nectar mixes targeted to turtle doves as part of their Environmental Stewardship agreements, or as a voluntary option.

Hayley adds: “There are a number of options available to farmers; they can choose to sow a turtle dove seed mix which provides optimal foraging habitat or to cultivate uncropped margins that allow the arable weeds in the natural seed bed to flourish. It would be great for farmers looking to help these special birds to get in touch for more advice on how to make these options work for them.

“The options will also benefit a range of other wildlife, including pollinating insects such as bumblebees and butterflies which could also do with a helping hand through next spring and summer.

“We are really proud of our wildlife friendly farmers who are already doing fantastic work for wildlife and the environment through agri-environment schemes as well as voluntarily. Farming in this way can make a real difference to the turtle dove and is necessary for its survival in England.”

Local landowners who are signed up to Environmental Stewardship schemes play a vital role in supporting key species and habitats, as well as making the countryside attractive and accessible for the public.

The general public also played their part this summer with record numbers of calls to the Operation Turtle Dove sightings hotline (01603 697527). These calls are vital in making sure that advice is targeted to the right areas. You can also help by making sure gardens are ‘turtle dove friendly’.

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