Yesterday, a much-needed action plan was launched to save our most rapidly declining migratory bird: the turtle dove.  The RSPB has worked for three years to get wide support for this plan and I am delighted to host this blog from my colleagues, Joscelyn Ashpole, Ian Fisher and Carles Carboneras, to say more.


Turtle doves are a sign of summer for many and iconic farmland birds. They’re also incredible long-distance migrants. Every spring, they make the journey northwards from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa to breed across Europe, returning to Africa in the autumn. On their journey, they cross landscapes far removed from the patchwork of fields and hedgerows that we mostly associate them with in the UK. 

Over the past few decades, we have been losing this bird from its farmland haunts at a dramatic rate. Since 1995, the UK turtle dove population has undergone a 94% decline, and in other parts of Europe similarly stark declines are evident. The loss of turtle doves is now so significant that the species is considered Vulnerable to global extinction on the IUCN Red List. 

For a bird that crosses so many borders, national conservation in isolation just isn’t enough. Cooperation is needed across the entire flyway to ensure that breeding, stopover and wintering habitats are all in good condition for this declining species. 

International cooperation

The RSPB, in partnership with BirdLife International, has been working over the last three years to bring people together from across the turtle-dove’s European, eastern Mediterranean and African range, to develop a plan to save the species. The Action Plan was officially launched on Thursday at an event in Brussels. Representatives from 50 countries, from the Gambia to France to Russia, have been involved in fine tuning the actions that are most urgently needed to reverse turtle dove declines. 

There is general acknowledgement that a loss of nesting, feeding and drinking habitats has been detrimental to turtle dove numbers and it is clear from reading the 130+ page Action Plan that work must happen right now to improve European breeding habitats if we are to halt further population declines. Key actions include: developing National Conservation Strategies for turtle-doves, creating Priority Intervention Areas where breeding habitats are specifically managed for turtle-doves, and ensuring that no measures that are detrimental are financed under the new EU Common Agricultural Policy framework. 

While breeding habitat management is key, of course, actions must be taken elsewhere along the flyway to ensure safe passage of the species on its annual migration. In countries where it is legal to hunt the species, the Action Plan calls for a temporary suspension of hunting, under the precautionary principal, until Adaptive Harvest Management can be put in place to ensure that the level of take is compatible with the long-term conservation of the species. One of the highlights of the Action Plan has been to see conservationists and hunting organisations coming together to find solutions. 

Other actions in the plan include ensuring that feeding, roosting and drinking habitats are available and in good condition on the wintering grounds.


Ian Fisher helping to launch the plan 

We’re already doing great work in the UK

In the UK, a fantastic group of organisations (Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Fair to Nature and RSPB) is already working together under the banner of Operation Turtle Dove to find ways to help turtle-doves. Activities include research into drivers of decline and trialling management solutions, as well as advising landowners on how to provide suitable nesting and feeding habitats.

The next challenge will be to ensure that the UK government is serious about implementing key actions for turtle-doves identified in the Action Plan. 

Looking to the future

Over the last three years, the turtle-dove has united people across borders, organisations and disciplines. It is vital that such collaboration continues so that the actions needed to save the species are put in place across the species’ range. In decades to come, our grand-children may then be able to know the turtle-dove as a common bird, much as our grand-parents did.

Carles Carboneras, Joscelyn Ashpole and Ian Fisher


  • What a fantastic initiative - a huge amount of work, which deserves its reward in Turtle Doves !

    It is easy to blame obvious human factors like hunting - but rightly this report recognises where some of the major problems lie, in our over-intensively farmed landscape. we need more rougher, pesticide free places, and not just in the remote uplands - what could the natural Capital Committees 250,000 hectares of community forest/greener space around our towns and cities do for Turtle Doves - and for the urban RSPB members  who love them ?

  • Yet more excellent work by the RSPB