Conservationists are embarking on an urgent mission to save one of the UK’s most threatened birds from extinction.
Operation Turtle Dove, launched today (Thursday May 10) by the RSPB, leading sustainable farming specialists Conservation Grade and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust in Norfolk, is a three-year project to reverse the decline of one of England’s best-loved farmland birds.
From The Bible to the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the turtle dove is well known in literature and folklore as a symbol of love and devotion. But numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years and there are now just nine birds for every 100 there were in the 1970s.
Once widespread across much of England and Wales, the species has been lost from many areas. It has remaining strongholds in East Anglia and south-east England.
Bruce Fowkes, RSPB South East farmland bird advisor, said: “Turtle doves are really struggling. After many years of decline we are facing the very real possibility of losing this beautiful bird from the UK.”
The cause of the population crash is not fully understood. However the birds’ diet consists almost entirely of small seeds from wild plants which grow in crops and changes in farming practices mean these plants are now scarce in our countryside.
Bruce continued: “This new project will build on a lot of positive work which has already been done by farmers and conservationists. As well as putting in place measures which will bring back some of the wild plants which farmland birds like the turtle dove rely on, we need a better understanding of the causes of this devastating decline.”
The project’s partners will work with farmers in turtle dove hotspots to establish plots of seed-rich plants on their land. Scientists from the RSPB will work alongside Conservation Grade’s sustainable farming experts and Pensthorpe’s aviculturalists to measure the impact on the birds’ diet and breeding success.
Tim Nevard, executive director of Conservation Grade and a Pensthorpe trustee, said the key to saving the turtle dove across Europe, and in England in particular, is to ensure the right nesting and foraging habitats are provided on farms.
He said: “Conservation Grade combines first-class farmland wildlife conservation with the best sustainable agriculture production standards, and so is ideally placed to develop the right habitats to ensure the survival of turtle doves.
“We have captive turtle doves at Pensthorpe which we will use to trial a number of seed mixtures to identify the most palatable and nutritious options – from breeding to fledging and beyond – so that the right choices about forage habitat creation can be made.
“We will be working closely with Natural England, our nationwide farmer network and commercial partners to encourage widespread uptake of these habitats.”
Other factors may be contributing to the decline of the turtle dove, including illegal hunting in the Mediterranean as the species makes its annual migration, agricultural changes in the African wintering grounds and the avian disease trichomoniasis which is common in pigeons and doves.
To help target the project’s research and advice to farmers, and to establish any turtle dove zones around the country, please report your turtle dove sightings at www.operationturtledove.org
1. Conservation Grade is an independent accreditation organisation that facilitates commercial relationships between farmers and consumers on an area rapidly approaching 100,000 acres in the UK through a system of agriculture that optimises both crop yields and biodiversity conservation. Conservation Grade has developed a truly unique system of sustainable farming, founded on science and commercial viability. It is internationally recognised by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study, as well as Natural England and leading NGOs such as the RSPB, for its significant contribution to the conservation of biodiversity through the commercial marketplace. www.conservationgrade.org
2. The Pensthorpe Conservation Trust’s unique expertise in captive rearing turtle doves and other threatened species for recovery projects will facilitate the investigation of matters vital to the long-term success of Operation Turtle Dove. An initial project element will involve offering captive-reared birds a choice of different types of seed to determine preferred foods throughout their breeding and rearing cycle; translating this crucial information into prescribed seed mixes to be sown by farmers. www.pensthorpetrust.org.uk
3. The RSPB speaks out for wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Wildlife and the environment face many threats. Our work is focussed on the species and habitats that are in the greatest danger. Our work is driven by the passionate belief that birds and wildlife enrich people’s lives. We have more than one million members, over 13,500 volunteers, 1,300 staff, more than 200 nature reserves, 10 regional offices, four country offices… and one vision – to work for a better environment rich in birds and wildlife. www.rspb.org.uk
4. Project information is available at www.operationturtledove.org