Projects aimed at reversing the decline in Turtle Dove numbers should be celebrated, writes
How birdwatchers are helping reverse the decline in Turtle Dove numbers
There is a phenomenon whereby humans become immune to the horrors of news heaped upon us 24 hours a day. It is very difficult to escape the constant bombardment of bad news in this multimedia modern world of ours. My Facebook feed pours in tales of what the human species has done to another of our planet’s creatures with alarming regularity. It would be so easy for us to ignore the fact that the Turtle Dove population in Britain has reduced by 93% since 1994. I know you have read this many times before, but please read it once again and take a few moments for it to actually sink in: the Turtle Dove population in Britain has reduced by 93% since 1994. Quite a few of you will pass over this simple but shocking fact and move on with your daily lives. That is fair enough but, fortunately, a few individuals and groups found this too much to stomach and decided to do something about it. These are a few of their stories... I will come on to large conservation NGOS later, but first here’s some details of a couple of ‘smaller’ projects run by individuals to highlight the fact that every little bit of help Turtle Doves can get is vitally important.
It is a bitterly cold and damp February day when I visit a Kent village to find out about a private patch of land managed for Turtle Doves. There are no Turtle Doves here today, of course; hopefully they are safe and warm on their wintering grounds of Africa! When David and Bridget Burridge moved into their beautiful cottage 10 years ago, they were already aware of the shocking plight of the Turtle Dove. What soon became obvious was that their quiet village was something of a haven for this beleaguered species. Every April to August, they could hear the gentle purring – or should I say
‘tur-turring’ – from their bedroom window. How I wish I could hear that gentle sound as my alarm call! Spring walks along the village lanes helped the Burridges discover a focal point for Turtle Dove activity: a small half acre plot which the local nursery used for the production of wallflowers. Once harvested, the land was left fallow until the following year. Turtle Doves used this ‘set-aside’ as a feeding station, while nesting in unkempt areas of scrub in surrounding areas. It was when the land came up for sale that the Burridges approached their friends David and Ann Tingey in the local Black Pig pub about acquiring the land for the Turtle Doves This happy band of dove devotees formed the Turtle Dove Summer Field (TDSF). Before going ahead, the group consulted the RSPB to see if it was worthwhile purchasing the plot. After positive feedback, the purchase went ahead and the hard work began. It was now time to make the village even more attractive to Turtle Doves. Villagers were encouraged to keep areas of their gardens unkempt to provide nesting sites for the doves. Unimproved habitat around the village was also encouraged. It was all very well having suitable feeding grounds for the doves but they also needed nest sites to keep
Villagers were encouraged to keep areas of their gardens unkempt to provide nesting sites for the doves. Unimproved habitat around the village was also encouraged
them in the local area! Once villagers had become enthused by the project, a meeting was held at the village hall to keep them up to date with what had been going on. The packed gathering produced more donations from local people and generated tremendous interest among the small community. Further funds were sought – and granted – from proceeds of the village fête, which are donated to local projects each year. Best4hedging donated hedging plants and The Woodland Trust donated some saplings to provide a living screen for the plot so the doves weren’t disturbed when feeding. Ongoing research by Operation Turtle Dove partners into the features Turtle Doves preferred, prompted TDSF members to create a pond on their land. Turtle Doves feed entirely on dry seed, so they need a regular supply of clean, fresh water. Personal observation by the group noted that the doves preferred bare earth to land and forage on, so more of this type of habitat was created. The largest bare spot – directly in front of the private hide in David and Bridget’s garden which backs onto the Turtle Dove plot – is rotavated every three weeks and for eight weeks following the birds’ arrival, fresh seed is put down weekly to help the doves reach breeding condition quickly. As well as providing seed directly, the TDSF members also planted a mix of native plants that would produce seeds that the doves could harvest themselves; Fumitory, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, and vetch. This plant mix established well on the field, but, crucially, retained enough bare ground within it to allow the doves to access the home-grown seeds. Turtle Doves are a bit claustrophobic when feeding and they will avoid fighting their way through dense ground vegetation. When it comes to choosing scrub, hedge or thicket to hide a nest, however, the thicker and denser the better. TDSF members noted that within the mix of new plants, Turtle Doves often went straight for the Fumitory, shaking the plants to dislodge the seeds. This fits with the results of studies that have shown Fumitory to be among the seed types most favoured by Turtle Doves. In the summer of 2016, TDSF noted eight Turtle Doves on their blossoming sanctuary. This is one of the highest concentrations of the species in the whole of Kent! Pleasingly, the group also noted their first juvenile bird on the cleared feeding areas. Encouragingly, the group has now seen evidence of Turtle Doves raising a second brood in one season: success! In total, 10 Red Listed species of birds have been recorded on this small plot! It just goes to show that you don’t have to protect huge tracts of land to give birds (and other wildlife) a helping hand. The Staple group of friends now has a superb feeding area for Turtle Doves and the whole village is extremely proud to be the Kent Capital of Turtle Doves. Alongside working with TDSF, Nicole Khan, the RSPB’S Turtle Dove Conservation Advisor, was in dialogue
with Kent farmers to see if any were interested in helping create or preserve habitat for the struggling dove. The response from the Kent farming community has been extremely positive, and it was clear that many farmers had a real sense of pride that their farms are helping to support such a charismatic and rare species. Having worked closely with TDSF to ensure their site was successful, Nicole was then able to point farmers in the direction of Staple and show them just how little land was needed to make a difference! This private haven for Turtle Doves is not open to the public. If you would like to see this charismatic species in Kent, then head for Stodmarsh NNR, where one or two pairs can be found. RSPB sites where Turtle Doves can be seen include Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire, Otmoor, Oxfordshire, Minsmere, Suffolk, Titchwell, Norfolk and Fowlmere, in Cambridgeshire.
In the spring of 2013, I wrote about Turtle Doves in Bird Watching magazine. I was able to report on a relatively new project, set up in May 2012: Operation Turtle Dove (OTD). This was a joint partnership between the RSPB, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Conservation Grade. The latter is an independent accreditation organisation that facilitates commercial relationships between farmers and consumers in the UK through a unique system of sustainable farming, founded on science and commercial viability. I was eager to find out if any progress had been made. Much research has been done (and continues to be done) into exactly what makes for successful areas for Turtle Doves. OTD research has found adult birds are taking longer to reach breeding fitness, so are not having as many broods as they were in the 1960s (four broods then compared with one or two broods now). Could this possibly be due to a lack of suitable food in the countryside? Feeding trials with captive birds at Pensthorpe came up with a mix of seeds, including Fumitory, to further try out in known Turtle Dove areas. There is now a two-year trial in East Anglia and Kent with this seed mix to see if it boosts Turtle Dove breeding success. Pensthorpe has been out and about talking with farmers in Norfolk. This dialogue helped the creation of a cluster farm group; a collection of farms being advised how best to help local Turtle Doves. This includes creating ponds, creating suitable breeding habitat, promoting the provision of feeding areas and engaging local communities. Citizen science also plays a part: birdwatchers are being asked to report sightings of Turtle Doves to build up a database of areas to target with conservation efforts. The efforts of Operation Turtle Dove to engage with farmers has been a success. In total, 64,000ha of farmland now has Turtle Dove conservation measures in place; this is an area more than one and a half times the size of the Isle of Wight! Advisors have also helped unlock some £16 million worth of funding for farmers to carry out agri-environment schemes which will benefit the birds. Funding, including that from Dove Step, means OTD can utilise satellite tracking to find out exactly where the doves go when leaving our shores for the winter. Comprehensive monitoring of sites in Senegal has resulted in 247 acres of Acacia woodland being protected, where there is a sizeable roost of Turtle Doves – more than 33,000 have been counted at this roost! Other surveys are being funded in dry savannah zones from Senegal to Mali. If researchers can find out what attracts so many birds to these large roosts (a good supply of seed food nearby and the presence of permanent water?), then maybe similar sites could be created and protected. So, it seems there is hope for the Red Listed Turtle Dove in Britain with the help of large conservation groups, smaller conservation projects and concerned, enthusiastic individuals. We can all do our little bit. Let us hope this symbol of everlasting love will be with us for a long time to come…
One of the Staple juvenile Turtle Doves
The site for Turtle Doves at Staple
Hide and seek – watching Turtle Doves at Staple
David and Ann Tingey (left) and David and Bridget Burridge (right) of the Turtle Dove Summer Field (TDSF) Project with Nicole Khan, RSPB Turtle Dove Conservation Advisor (centre)
Turtle Doves love to feed on Fumitory
Naturally, doves need water as well as food, shelter and somewhere to nest
A pair of Turtle Doves show off their distinctive tail pattern in flight