RSPB press release – Turtle Doves

UK turtle dove survey warns of low numbers, but hope is on the horizon

Turtle Dove. Photo: Tim Melling
  • The first ever national turtle dove survey has estimated that just 2,100 pairs of turtle dove now breed in the UK
  • This migratory bird is primarily at risk due to loss of habitat and unsustainable levels of hunting
  • Although sobering results, solutions are now in place to tackle the two biggest threats facing our turtle dove populations

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 dove across their UK range. Provisional results published today 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.

Research shows that the decline of turtle doves is being driven by two main factors: the loss of suitable habitat on the breeding grounds and unsustainable levels of hunting when they migrate through south-west Europe on spend the winter in Africa. Although the results are sobering, there is hope for this summer resident. Identifying factors driving the decline have 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.

Phil Grice, Principal Specialist for Ornithology at Natural England said: “The fact that no hunting is currently permitted on the western European flyway provides us with a huge window of opportunity to reverse the decline in arguably one of England’s most threatened bird species. Providing good nesting habitat (in the form of tall hedges and mature scrub) and abundant seed resources throughout the late spring and summer will be vital, both of which can be delivered through a well-planned and delivered Countryside Stewardship agreement.

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.

Turtle Dove, adult pair feeding on hard standing area where supplementary food has been placed, Langdyke Trust’s Etton-Maxey Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire.  Photo: Ben Andrew/RSPB

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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12 Replies to “RSPB press release – Turtle Doves”

  1. I watch turtle Doves in a valley in SW France. there are lots. It’s a scruffy landscape, about 70% neat vineyards but the rest semi-abandoned grazing, with lots of ‘weeds’, bramble and rose thickets, and small dead trees which they love to perch on. Whilst hunting can certainly tip a declining population over the edge there is no earthly comparison between my ‘ideal’ habitat and English arable (or Northern French for that matter) and with the best will in the world agri-environment will struggle to produce more than a pale imitation. If you want the answer it is there at Knepp wildlands which strangely is rarely if ever mentioned by ‘mainstream’ conservation.

  2. What about the French Hunter turned conservationist who said some years ago French hunters used to hike into the Pyrenees to the pass where most turtle doves cross on migration but it was very arduous for hiking he said now with 4 × 4’s they can easily get to the highest points in huge numbers to shoot turtle doves and other passage migrants never hear about just as in Malta and Cyprus whose shooting fraternity bears remarkable resemblance to our fox hunting fraternity ‘we do it because we’ve always done ignite our right’s ‘ sounds not that distant from the USA gun lobby

  3. Go for it! Yesterday, my wife and I while having coffee on our 3 acre orchard (wood pasture) in Norfolk UK, we were ‘entertained’ by the sight and sound of a turtle dove in the old ‘enclosure’ hawthorns on the orchard boundary nearby. We experienced joy.
    Putting out a litre of supplementary feed each day is a small chore to earn such rewards.
    Not a scientific survey, but via the feeding we think we have increased from a pair to 4 or 5 individuals. Small numbers but a big proportion.

    1. David – so good to hear good news. I was at an outdoor event in Suffolk yesterday evening and during the speeches, the quietest part of the evening, there was a Turtle Dove singing. Joy!

          1. Sir Ian Botham mentioned it, amongst other things, in the Telegraph – 15th June .
            You can read it on the C4 PMC site.

  4. Here in Norfolk, we have many collared doves in the garden, but I have never seen them on the turtle dove supplementary feed area on the orchard a mile away, or on the heathland and farmland adjacent to it.
    Stock doves, yes, up to 20 at a time, but the turtle doves pay them no regard, carrying on feeding when the stock doves depart in one of their mass panics.
    Friends started supplementary feeding this year about half a mile away across the heath and now have turtle doves feeding. I must ask a local ‘top’ birder what numbers he has estimated.

  5. Did they have many pairs at the event site you were at in Suffolk Mark? Are they helped and recorded?
    David, are they returning birds, breeding or attempting to? Do you do any predator control? Did your friends have them before they started feeding? It doesn’t have to be scientific. Does it? Action better than words! Having the passion, knowing your patch and what you have is more important. The science is flawed anyway. Two surveys a year does not accurate TD data make. Especially when those doing it don’t know or have full access to the ground. Even though we tried to find out, we hadn’t a clue who had claimed some squares and were surveying some of our TD farms/sites in Suffolk. They certainly didn’t make themselves known, have full access or permission. Knowledge of or recorded any necessary targeted predator control we done. there figures were wrong and showed that. Flawed! Plus established pairs are not always vocal or visible. Same with young birds or where corvid numbers are high. Weather makes a difference to. There’s plenty like you, your friends and myself just getting on and doing what they can to help them. It’s really not that hard! To many with limited knowledge try to complicate it for their own agenda, funding or gain. Education, understanding and cooperation are important, and sometimes all that’s needed to get pairs established and breeding. Less is more at times. Having great success on small areas of undisturbed ground with the right habitat. Small holdings, big gardens, orchards, private reserves, equestrian yards, fisheries. All areas that are very important and work for TDs, but seem to get over looked by farmer/shooter bashers. Perhaps that is why they do so well and it a good thing? I purchased my own house many years ago because on second viewing there was a pair of turtle doves under the bird table. Wife has gone but the TD’s still come. Scruffy scrubby corners, old ponds and hedges. Plenty of cover, seeds and weeds, a bit of supplementary feeding and targeted pest control at the right time works! Stock doves not big competition for them. Collared doves can be in numbers, pushing them off feed, territories and stressing them on return. Plus there is the increased risk of trichomonas from them. To many corvids and squirrels a constant problem. Getting 3 pairs successfully breeding on 7 acres if you get it right is possible and as important as 3 pairs breeding on 300 acres of farmland. Easier to manage and monitor to. But more vulnerable to change of ownership, management, new domestic pets. 2 cats pushed 2 pairs off long established site. A new dog on another. A new contractor with a flail mower. A bonfire. Or like today, it was a man with a chainsaw. Little things and action’s making a big difference either way!
    Though they are so vulnerable we have got the collective passion, knowledge, skills and the pairs of turtle doves breeding in Suffolk. Targeted predator control is an important, necessary part of any continued successes! As to many early nests fail to predation. The hard bit is expanding such low numbers! Can it be done? With more cooperation, sharing of information and knowledge maybe!

    Without to much emotion and politics, It’s possible!

    May they continue to bring us joy!

  6. Lucky us! 30/06/22 turtle dove singing in the quarter acre very wild garden at our house in the village while we ate lunch! I wonder if this was a this years young dispersing from the supplementary feeding areas about 1 mile away?
    Steve, My friends had TD historically but not in recent years. I think there are returning birds as they are first seen in their favourite tree and take the previous year’s flight path to the feed areas. No predator control.
    I do not have a scientific approach, I just manage my 3 acre orchard to create as much, varied habitat as I can. I hope that helps.

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