As I watched the first week of BBC Springwatch last month (is it June already?!), it was impossible not to marvel at the technical and cultural achievement of the series' producers in painting this intimate portrait of our native wildlife. Familiar recurring characters the blue tits and wrens sit alongside new cast members like the leverets (young hares) and little owl on our TV screens, while the perennially engaging presenters explain and interpret in effusive style. But between the inspiring story of the black-tailed godwit chicks being given a head-start by conservationists in the Cambridgeshire Fens, and the revelation – shocking to some – that even sheep occasionally get a taste for the eggs of ground nesting waders, I couldn't help feeling like there was something missing.
Where were the turtle doves?
Then it struck me, "Have they ever had turtle doves on Springwatch?", as if it were a talk show and all it would take is a call to a turtle dove's agent to arrange an appearance.
"I'm sorry, my client's away at their winter home in Mali and won't be back until May – oh, the show airs in May-June? Great, we'll be there!"
Of course, it's not that easy, and it's not the fault of the programme's producers that in little more than a generation, turtle doves have gone from being a common sight and sound of summer to one of the rarest and most elusive migratory birds to breed in the British countryside.
In little more than a generation, turtle doves have gone from being a common sight and sound of summer to one of the rarest and most elusive migratory birds to breed in the British countryside. Photo: Les Bunyan (rspb-images.com)
Two years ago, turtle doves did in fact make a brief guest appearance on Springwatch, when RSPB scientists fitted a satellite tag to a male dove they named Titan. It was by following Titan's journey from Suffolk to Senegal and back that the route taken by turtle doves that breed in the UK – south through France and Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar, across arid Morocco and Western Sahara, to tropical West Africa – was first confirmed.
Momentous as this breakthrough was, turtle doves have yet to make a return to Springwatch, let alone get on the roster of regulars. It's not just that there aren't that many around. They make their nests in the deepest densest scrub and hedgerows they can find, and apart from when the males are singing to attract a mate, they prefer to keep a low profile.There is hope for turtle doves though.
Last month saw the launch in Europe of a new continent-wide action plan to help reverse the long-term decline in turtle dove numbers. This plan focused on the need for feeding and nesting habitat to be restored across the farmed countryside where turtle doves breed throughout Europe, but it also recommended a temporary end to hunting in those countries where turtle doves are still a quarry species, until a sustainable level of hunting can be determined. This may just give turtle doves the respite they need for habitat restoration to start taking effect and increasing their numbers for the first time in 50 years.
The Operation Turtle Dove partnership has recently published new guidance for farmers in the UK to help provide supplementary food for hungry turtle doves in the summer, when they are in greatest need of energy to breed, feed and rear chicks. This and other initiatives to boost the birds' breeding success will be key to taking advantage of any relief turtle doves get from hunting in France and Spain.
Who knows, if British farming after Brexit is going to be better for nature and help reverse wildlife loss, as Michael Gove promises it will, turtle doves may yet have a future as Springwatch mainstays.
Find out more about Operation Turtle Dove's work to save turtle doves in the UK, Europe and Africa, including what you can do to help, at www.operationturtledove.org.
Visit a nature-friendly farm this Open Farm Sunday
This weekend, thousands of farmers around the country will be opening their gates and welcoming people onto their farms as part of a national open day for British food and farming. RSPB and Operation Turtle Dove Farm Conservation Advisors will be at Open Farm Sunday events on nature-friendly farms around the East of England to show people how farming can help wildlife like turtle doves.
Come and find us at the following farms:
For details of these and other LEAF Open Farm Sunday events visit www.farmsunday.org
Find out more about LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) at www.leafuk.org
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