Operation Turtle Dove: saving a bird on the brink

Turtle dove front on

Turtle doves, were once a familiar sight and sound of summer before a huge population decline put them on the brink of disappearing from our countryside. But with the help of conservation organisations, farmers, land managers and people like you, we’re hoping to turn the tide.

Turtle dove front on

Fifty years ago, the turtle dove’s calming, purring call was often heard during the summer months in England and Wales. It could even be heard even as far north as the Scottish borders. Not any more. Today these dainty doves are mainly found in southern and eastern England with a few isolated populations elsewhere.  They have the title of UK’s fastest declining bird, with their numbers dropping by 95% between 1995 and 2018.  But all is not lost. Huge efforts at home and abroad are being made to secure the future of this special bird.

Summer visitors

 The turtle dove is often linked to the festive period because of its appearance in the carol the Twelve Days of Christmas.  But you will never spot one on Christmas Day. By then the turtle doves are long gone, only staying with us during the warmer months of spring and summer. They spend the rest of their year in sub-Saharan Africa, making the huge 3,000km journey over seas and desert every spring and autumn. Pretty impressive for a bird slightly larger than a blackbird.

Turtle doves come to the UK for one reason – they’re in the mood to bring up a brood. They are typically found on farmland where they need three key features – a place to nest, ideally in dense thorny scrub vegetation; a place to drink, such as a shallow-sided pond, and a good food supply. Unlike many migrant birds such as swallows and swifts which feast on insects, the turtle dove eats small seeds from wild plants and weeds.

Securing the turtle dove’s future

Because turtle doves only spend part of their year in the UK, we have to work internationally to help numbers increase. This means carrying out a variety of conservation activities across this bird’s range and with a variety of partners - from land managers to scientists to decision-makers.

Operation Turtle Dove was launched in 2012. This partnership project saw RSPB, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Fair to Nature join forces to carry out the actions needed to increase turtle dove numbers. 

The group is now working with an ever-increasing number of farmers, landowners, communities and volunteers to provide nesting and feeding habitats in their local ‘Turtle Dove Friendly Zones’ in eastern and southeastern England.  A group of RSPB turtle dove advisors is on hand to help land managers provide homes for turtle doves - to find out more head to the Operation Turtle Dove website.

Working across borders

With support from partners, we have carried out research to understand more about where turtle doves go. Fitting tiny satellite tags to turtle doves has shown us that all UK-breeding turtle doves migrate through France, Spain and Portugal along their 3,000mile flyway to their West African wintering areas. 

We have also led on the creation of an International Species Action Plan for turtle doves. By working with partners such as the European Commission, Birdlife Europe, conservation groups, scientists and hunting associations we proved that international conservation efforts for long-distance migratory birds can be successful. 

The action plan inspired a significant turning point in turtle dove conservation. In 2021, it was agreed to ban turtle dove hunting in Spain, Portugal and France for the 2021 hunting season. It was a game changing moment which we fought hard for, potentially saving more than a million turtle doves in just one season. It’s a fantastic step, but we can’t stop there.

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We need to extend the ban

We’re now working towards ensuring we never see a return to the unsustainable hunting of turtle doves in Portugal, Spain and France. We’re pushing for a continuation of the ban for another three years as a minimum. This would give the turtle dove population in Western Europe much needed breathing space, and an ideal window of opportunity to accelerate our efforts to tackle the other conservation priority – providing good quality breeding habitats in the UK. Only by improving breeding habitats and removing the issue of unsustainable hunting are we likely to recover the population.

By combining ‘home’ and ‘away’ efforts together – providing more food and shelter here and ensuring the hunting ban remains in place for several more years, we have a good chance of recovering turtle dove numbers.

The latest figures on the turtle dove’s plight

In 2021, volunteers spent some very early mornings out looking for turtle doves. The results of this national survey will be released soon. There’s no doubt it will show just how far our turtle dove numbers have fallen since 1970. But now we believe the right action is being taken to tackle the two biggest problems we know our turtle doves face. This gives us hope that we really can turn the fortunes of turtle dove around.

Together, we will save turtle doves

Saving migratory birds like turtle doves is very difficult. It will take scientific evidence, technical expertise, national and international partnerships, time and sheer dogged persistence. But you can help give the turtle dove a bright future by supporting our work. Together we can bring them back from the brink.   
Help us protect threatened birds, and take a stand for nature. 

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