The turtle dove is the fastest-declining UK species, with numbers falling by 98% since the 1970s. Last year, almost 1,000 volunteers, farmers, study groups, county bird clubs and other organisations mobilised to record turtle doves across their UK range. Provisional results show that there are now just an estimated 2,100 pairs left, down from an estimated 125,000 pairs in 1970.

Turtle doves are unique as the only long-distance migratory dove species in Europe. They are known for their distinctive “purring” call and the intricate scalloped pattern on their wing feathers. They are synonymous with Christmas, despite not being in the UK at that time, due to their inclusion in the famous song Twelve Days of Christmas and of course in the 90’s film Home Alone.

According to research, the decline of turtle doves is being driven by two main factors:

  1. the loss of suitable habitat on the breeding grounds and
  2. unsustainable levels of hunting when they migrate through south-west Europe to spend the winter in Africa.

Hope for Turtle Doves

Although the results are sobering, there is hope for this summer resident. Identifying factors driving the decline has helped pinpoint the solutions. This includes working with farmers, landowners and volunteers who play a key role in supporting turtle doves in the UK.

Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership – between the RSPB, Fair to Nature, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England – aimed at reversing the decline in this beloved farmland bird. The project is driving forward the restoration and creation of turtle dove breeding habitat, which holds the key to securing a future for turtle doves in the UK. A team of advisors is on hand to provide guidance to land managers on creating turtle dove habitat and providing supplementary feeding.

Turtle doves are now concentrated in south-eastern and eastern England, as far north as Yorkshire. Providing the correct habitat is critical to ensuring this species success. It is imperative that the new agri-environment schemes in England continue to support farmers who implement wildlife-friendly measures on their land. Without this funding, current turtle dove conservation efforts may be severely compromised. 

Turtle doves are also threatened from unsustainable hunting practices. In SW Europe alone, about 1 million birds were estimated to be shot each year until recently. However, in 2021, for the first time, no hunting of turtle doves was permitted in France, Spain or Portugal. The RSPB played a pivotal role in developing the science, species action planning, and international policy work, that led to the hunting ban, and calls for a sustainable long-term management system that will allow the recovery of the species on a continental scale.

Andrew Stanbury, Conservation Scientist said: “In the 70s, there were records of flocks of over five hundred birds, and the UK population was estimated at 125,000 pairs. Although these results paint a stark picture with numbers, the way forward is clear and we stand a good chance of turning around the fortunes of this bird. We hope that the 2021 survey will represent the lowest population point.”

The turtle dove is one of our most charismatic birds and their declining numbers continue to concern conservation bodies. A collaborative effort between landowners, volunteers and other stakeholders can slow and prevent further declines of the turtle dove, which is important now more than ever.

The 2021 National Turtle Dove Survey was a partnership project coordinated by the RSPB, Rare Breeding Birds Panel and Kent Ornithological Society, with support from British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The turtle dove survey is part of ‘Action for Birds in England’, a conservation partnership between Natural England and the RSPB.

Effective ways that the general public can help turtle doves in the UK include reporting sightings via BirdTrack, volunteering to take part in surveys and supporting the work of the RSPB and Operation Turtle Dove partners.

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Nisha Kotecha is the Founder of Good News Shared. Having worked and volunteered for charities in the UK for over 10 years, Nisha is on a mission to highlight how amazing charities are.

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