With turtle doves experiencing one of the harshest population declines of any UK bird (98%), a ban on hunting them across Spain could not be more welcome. This was the news recently announced by Spanish authorities that they will not be authorising the hunting of turtle doves for 2021, saving almost one million birds, some of whom will be migrating to the UK. 

Turtle dove resting on a branch – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Turtle dove resting on a branch – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com) 

The summer months see an influx of migrant species using our habitats to forage and breed. The reason they come is simple: food. As their winter grounds further south become cooler, the tasty insects and flowering annual plants are just waking up in the UK and they’re worth making the thousand-mile trip, sometimes more. But for some species, influx might not be the right phrase.  

Turtle doves were once a staple of the British countryside with their iconic, name-sake call echoing from our landscapes, “turrr-turrr”. Sadly, following industrialised agriculture and increasingly fragmented habitats their populations have plummeted – we don’t use that word lightly. There are now only estimated to be 2 turtle doves for every 100 that were here in 1970. But it isn't just their summer breeding grounds that are cause for concern. Each year they migrate to and from West Africa, a 3000km journey, travelling through numerous countries, many with their own ideas on conservation priorities. Despite their well-documented decline, some countries still permit them to be shot as part of their annual shooting quota.  

Tracking data of a tagged turtle dove as part of RSPB’s Tracking Turtle Doves study (2016) - Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Tracking data of a tagged turtle dove as part of RSPB’s Tracking Turtle Doves study (2016) - Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)  

Spain is a crucial “land-bridge” between Europe and Africa for UK migrating turtle doves. Engaging and working with the country’s hunting community means we can grow awareness for their decline and importantly begin to reverse it. The news that Spain will introduce this hunting ban is a big step in the right direction.  

Dr Andy Evans, the RSPB’s Head of Global Species Recovery said, “This is a really positive step from Spanish authorities because Spain is a key country on the migration route of the species. Hunting exacerbates the problems for these birds caused by agricultural changes, but both problems need to be tackled in order to save the turtle dove. By stopping hunting, turtle doves are given a better chance to recover.” 

Turtle dove perched on a branch at RSPB Titchwell Nature Reserve - Les Bunyan (rspb-images.com)
Turtle dove perched on a branch at RSPB Titchwell Nature Reserve - Les Bunyan (rspb-images.com) 

BirdLife International, our partner working in Spain, are continuing to urge the Spanish authorities to list turtle doves under their Threatened Species catalogue. This will ensure they will remain under the hunting ban for as long as they are classified as a threatened species. If achieved this could have a revolutionary impact on the population as scientists suggest that just a 4-year ban on hunting could see turtle doves recover to stable numbers. Let that sink in for a second, not just halt decline. Recover. 

Whether you’re a farmer, landowner or weekly shopper, there are all steps we can take to give turtle doves the best chance when they arrive in our countryside. The people behind Operation Turtle Dove, a collaboration between the RSPB, Fair To NaturePensthorpe Trust and Natural England, are working tirelessly in the UK and all the way along the turtle dove flyway, and have lots of tips and tricks of how you can help. By working together, we could one day see this British icon return to their former success, and it could be sooner than you think. 


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