Conservationists, farmers and wildlife enthusiasts have rallied to the cause of one of England’s most threatened birds, the turtle dove, which has seen its worst year yet.
Numbers have crashed by 85 per cent since 1995 according to the State of the UK’s Birds report released last week, and sightings this summer were the lowest ever. The British Trust for Ornithology’s recent Bird Atlas has revealed that the turtle dove’s range has shrunk dramatically by 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010, but this year a campaign to save the turtle dove has taken off in a big way.
More than 1,250 people rang in to the Operation Turtle Dove hotline in 2013 to report sightings, helping conservationists build up a vital picture of the birds’ nesting and foraging areas. The top county for sightings were Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent.
Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership project between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England, has been busy visiting farms in the South and East of England to help them put in place measures to help turtle doves bounce back. Advisors have helped unlock £16 million worth of funding for farmers to carry out agri-environment schemes which will benefit the birds.
Simon Tonkin, farmland advisor for Operation Turtle Dove, said: “Although we sing about turtle doves at Christmas, in fact they are in their African wintering grounds at this time of year. But closer to home we believe it is the loss of arable plants from our countryside which is having a major impact on them. These birds spend the summer in England where they rely on wild plants for food – but the way we farm has meant there is often no room for them at the edge of fields.
“Turtle doves are a symbol of enduring love from Chaucer to Shakespeare and their unmistakable purr is an intrinsic part of the English summer. We must act urgently to save these beautiful creatures now while we still can – because if we don’t they will disappear from England entirely within a generation.
“It has been truly heart-warming this year to see the way the public and farmers have rallied to their cause by putting conservation measures in place, raising money and spreading the word. Together we may be able to save this very special species.”
Turtle doves are one of the most endangered birds in the UK, but the population here has been given a boost by the creativity of a 6-year-old girl from Sheffield.
Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership project to save this bird on the brink of extinction, launched the competition to find names for their two logo birds. And thanks to Alice Stavert-Dobson, they are now christened as Heart and Hope.
Alice (pictured below with her sister) said: “I chose ‘Heart’ to represent love and ‘Hope’ because I hope turtle doves will still be here in the future. I was really pleased to win the competition and I can’t wait to go and see the turtle doves this summer in Pensthorpe Nature Reserve.”
Turtle doves are currently embarking on a long journey back to the UK after spending the winter in Sub-Sarahan Africa and should arrive back in the UK around the middle of April. The threat to this iconic bird is real. Changes in modern day agricultural practices have been attributed to the loss of arable plants in farmland, which produce the early seed source turtle doves need on their return to the UK.
Alison Gardner from the RSPB said: “It is distressing to learn that we have lost nearly 60 per cent of our turtle doves in the five years to 2010. If this decline continues we could be down to fewer than 1000 pairs by 2020, with complete UK extinction a real possibility.
“The fantastic work of Operation Turtle Dove aims to make a real difference. Project partners are working with farmers to implement a bespoke seed rich mix which will be available to turtle doves on their return in Spring. Our new turtle dove logo names reflect these birds so beautifully and we want to secure their future so children like Alice and her sister Thea will be able to enjoy their gentle ‘purring’ way into their adulthood and beyond.”
Scientists have warned that partridges and turtle doves are disappearing at such alarming rates that without urgent action they may cease to exist in the UK.
The number of grey partridges, estimated at around 43,000 pairs, dropped by 30% in the five years to 2010, according to the latest wild bird statistics, published by Defra on Thursday.
The turtle dove population, estimated at just 14,000 pairs, is in even greater decline. There has been a 60% drop in numbers over the same period.
“Losing six out of 10 of our turtle doves and three out of 10 grey partridge in five years is nothing short of an unsustainable wildlife disaster,” said RSPB scientist Mark Eaton, “The turtle dove is in a great degree of danger – if this trend were to continue we could be down to fewer than 1,000 pairs by the middle of the next decade, with complete extinction a real possibility.
“We are urging the Government to take urgent action to save these species from becoming just memories within The Twelve Days of Christmas festive classic.”