Turtle doves are summer visitors to the UK, arriving here around the beginning of May, and heading back to their sub-Saharan wintering grounds around the end of September. Although only with us for about 5 months each year, these small doves have captured the imagination of writers and artists, being referenced in William Shakespeare’s poem ‘The Pheonix and the Turtle’, and perhaps more famously on the second day of the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’ song.
The turtle dove - an iconic British farmland bird (c. Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
But unfortunately, all is not well with the iconic turtle dove. Recent trends from the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey show a 96% decline in the UK between 1970 and 2012. More locally, turtle doves have declined by 88% in the South East between 1995 and 2012. On a wider scale, they have declined by 63% across Europe between 1980 and 2005 – the future is looking bleak!
In response to these alarming figures, Operation Turtle Dove – Saving a bird on the brink, was launched in 2012. It’s a partnership project between Conservation Grade, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and the RSPB, and aims to reverse these dramatic declines by focussing on three main areas:
- Researching factors affecting breeding grounds in the UK
- Establishing feeding habitat over the core breeding range through farm advice
- Looking into factors affecting migration and the wintering grounds
For more information on the project see the Operation Turtle Dove website here
Turtle doves do occur on the South Downs, and you may well have them on your farm. They like to nest in tall thick hedges and dense scrub, and it is often their distinctive purring call that will give their presence away. Turtle doves eat seeds all year round, and have a particular preference for fumitory, which grows in profusion on light chalky soil.
If you have agri-environment scheme options such as fallow plots or margins, conservation headlands or wild bird seed mixtures, there’s a chance that turtle doves could be using them. Although the birds are currently in Africa enjoying warmer climbs, it is the late winter/early spring management of these habitats that makes them suitable for when they arrive back here in May, so making plans now is important.
If you do have turtle doves on your farm, and would like some advice on managing habitat for them, see the advisory contacts list for details of who to contact.