I haven’t seen a turtle dove in Northamptonshire this year and it seems I am not the only one.
This was a bird that I didn’t see in the north Somerset countryside where I grew up. It was only when we came on holiday to East Anglia that I saw my first turtle dove – but they were everywhere. As soon as we got to The Fens there were turtle doves on every wire, in every village, round every grain store and by every road side. It was really my first experience of what it is often like when one first visits a new country. Suddenly, a bird that you’ve seen in the field guides, and hoped to see, and tried to learn its identification features, is everywhere and becomes familiar and normal and unexceptional.
But the turtle is a gorgeous bird. It is difficult for one ever to ignore it although I fear I may have done in youthful enthusiasm for the next new bird (which at that stage might well have been spotted redshank or avocet).
Now the song of the turtle is much less commonly heard in the land – and I have seen only a handful this year whilst traversing those same East Anglian roads on which I would have seen scores 40 years ago. If only I had had Birdtrack in those days then I could do something clever to show you how much less common they have become – but as it is I can just tell you.
The causes of the decline are not fully known. But in the UK turtle doves have very low breeding success so even with their reduced numbers they are finding it difficult to scrape a living in the countryside. Changes in agriculture are known to have reduced the abundance of weeds on which they depend (fumitory is always the one that is mentioned). There may be other things going on too. Spring shooting in places like the Gironde is unhelpful for this species and also illegal under EU laws – but it happens. It probably happens with a gallic shrug of the shoulders.
Also, there may be factors on the turtle dove’s wintering grounds which may not be helping it too, after all many sub-Saharan migrants are declining in Europe.
But, as I say, the main cause of the decline is, on the basis of research not conjecture, thought to operate on the breeding grounds causing low productivity. A gang of organisations and farmers are working together in East Anglia to try to put things as right as possible for this beautiful and declining bird.
Last week there was a bit of a hoo-ha over a firm of agents (estate agents, sporting agents) called Davis and Bowring who were advertising turtle dove shooting holidays in Morocco in June and July – you could fit in a few days shooting of turtle doves to get your eye in before the grouse season was the suggestion. Davis and Bowring have stopped featuring these trips on their website as a result of receiving lots of comments from angry fans of the turtle dove and I think we should thank them for that.
Turtle doves shot in Morocco in June and July are not UK turtle doves (I’d be pretty sure about that) and I don’t really know what the status of Moroccan turtle doves is. Turtle dove shooting in Morocco is legal at this time of year (although whether it should be is another matter) and the shooting was restricted to four days a week by Moroccan law.
I love the turtle dove to bits, and I am saddened by its huge drop in numbers in the UK, but I’m not sure that we necessarily have the right target in our sights if we expend lots of moral outrage on some turtle dove shooting in Morocco. Summer shooting of turtle doves in Morocco is not going to do the turtle dove population any good, but it is possible (although not certain) that it won’t do it much harm either. The fact that it is a very beautiful bird, and that we love it to bits, and that it is declining in our neck of the woods doesn’t mean that anything that harms an individual turtle dove is fair game for our anger.
I got in touch with Davis and Bowring about these holidays and asked them a few questions. They did get back to me, emailing from a layby on the A9 apparently (near a grouse moor?) and they seemed a bit perplexed and taken aback by the outcry. Here is what they sent me:
Dear Dr Avery,
I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond to your emails but I am never near a computer at this time of year. (This is being written from a lay by on the A9!)
Regarding the Turtle Dove shooting, this is a trip which we haven’t facilitated for some years and we probably should have withdrawn the web page ages ago.
I have spoken to the local organising agent, expressing our concern that a red list endangered species was being hunted and threatened to become extinct if shooting was not stopped and his reply was that in Morocco the legal hunting of turtle doves was subject to strict seasonal control and numbers allowed to be shot were also subject to limits which were closely monitored. He also mentioned the socio economic benefits of shooting and highlighted the contrasting situation in Spain and France where shooting (and I suspect other European countries) went on, largely unregulated.
I am grateful to you and your many followers who have directed me to the various turtle Dove web sites and I shall look forward to finding out more about the migration habits of this beautiful bird and how improved agriculture in Morocco effects numbers of birds in North Africa.
Are ‘our’ turtle doves I.e. the few we see in the gardens and parks of Southern England from Africa? Perhaps they are, and I look forward to discovering more. If you could direct me to any other published works on the matter I would be grateful.
In the meantime, as you know we have withdrawn Moroccan Turtle Dove shooting from the range of services we offer and I hope the web page has now been closed.
That seems to me to be a perfectly good response. If you agree then do let Davis and Bowring know through their website, please.
I would have my doubts about the strictness of the seasonal control of shooting and how well bags were monitored in Morocco but maybe the country has changed dramatically since last I was there.
The subject of killing of birds, particularly of endangered species (I use the term loosely here), is a tricky one. I talk about it in Chapter 5 of Fighting for Birds.
I don’t know enough about the Moroccan situation to hold very strong views, but I am glad that this particular marketing of that sport has stopped. Still continuing, in the UK of course, is the legal shooting of snipe, woodcock, red grouse and grey partridge (the first three of which are amber-listed and the last, symbol of GWCT, is red-listed).
Shooting of these species also isn’t the prime cause of their declines. Are we asking all shooting of these species to cease? I don’t think that many of us are, and those who are, don’t claim that it is because shooting will drive down their numbers. But if we asked questions about this shooting no-one could claim that the numbers allowed to be shot were subject to strict control and monitoring in the UK. Maybe we should ask some Moroccans over to show us how that’s done.