Katharine Lowrie, RSPB Exe-Teign Facilitation Fund Project Officer, and a group 13 Devon farmers, foresters and land managers, visit the inspiring Knepp Wildland in West Sussex to discover how their rewilding project is giving turtle doves (and lots of other wildlife) a home.

I stop pedaling abruptly, "It can’t be?". I strain my ears, "Yes. It’s unmistakable. It’s back!". The rich purr adds a deep mournful note to the morning’s dawn chorus: the ‘turrrrr’ of a turtle dove.

Flying over 2,500 miles, it has navigated from the steaming forests and savannas of Senegal, through the oven of the Sahara desert and over the Mediterranean to the foothills of the Haldon Ridge, to find a mate to nest with. 

Tragically, like the extinct dodo and passenger pigeon (once members of its family) turtle dove numbers are plummeting and it is threatened with global extinction. It is the UK’s fastest declining bird species.

Photo 1: Turtle Dove by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

In May this year, I was talking to the Exe-Teign Facilitation Fund group about the conservation of farmland birds. The group is part of a national incentive, which is funded by Natural England to improve the local natural environment at a landscape scale. Our group comprises of farmers and foresters from the Exe Estuary to eastern Dartmoor. The turtle dove is one of our priority species and we were discussing how we could manage land better in our area to maintain them.

Here in the Teign Valley on the fringes of Dartmoor, turtle doves and other wildlife have clung on where Devon’s traditional patchwork quilt cloaks the steep hillsides with orchards, small arable fields with Spring-sown crops, traditional farm yards with spilt grant, cattle and sheep grazed pasture, ancient meadows, ponds, wetlands, woodland, copses, scrubby thickets, and tall hedgerows. But things are changing, and this year, that sultry purring was missing from the dawn chorus.

So the Exe-Teign Facilitation Fund group has concocted a plan to find out exactly what ticks a turtle dove’s box when it comes to setting up home for its family. I had got wind of a visionary wild project on the 3,500 acre Knepp Estate, incongruously nestled in the Home Counties, where turtle dove populations are bucking not just national, but international trends: they’ve increased from zero to 18 pairs since the project began in 2001. So we decided to visit - 13 farmers, land managers and foresters set off in the wee hours in August, from Kennford to West Sussex in search of the enigmatic turtle dove to see whether we could entice them back to Devon.

Photo 2: Knepp by Katharine Lowrie

Once farmed for grain and milk, Knepp was proving increasingly nonviable due to its heavy clay soils. The owners grappled for years intensifying production, but were unable to compete with other farms. When an ancient tree specialist explained how their veteran oak trees were silently dying due to ploughing and compaction of their roots, they were finally convinced that it was time to let nature take the helm and dictate what should happen to their land. The dairy herd and tractors moved out and wildlife moved in.

Local residents were up in arms:  "It looks totally abandoned, like nobody cares for it anymore". Others accused the family of, ‘wanton vandalism’ and taking a ‘backward step’. The owners removed all the internal fencing of the estate, reseeded some fields, and allowed other fields to rejuvenate on their own. They introduced herds of animals to mimic the mammals that would have once populated our landscape, including: red deer, fallow deer, long-horn cattle, Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth pigs.

Photo 3: Knepp by Katharine Lowrie

We humans hate change. But what we often forget is that our landscape has changed irrecoverably from what it used to look like before we arrived on our little island. Even in the past fifty years, with agriculture intensification, our landscape has altered. Unfortunately, from a wild animal’s point of view, the new landscape is more hostile, with less food and fewer places to call home.

But at Knepp, something astounding is happening. Unlike in much of the rest of the UK, wildlife is returning. In fact it is flooding back. Where once there was silence, birds are singing and insects buzzing. Rare species such as: nightingale, cuckoo, purple emperor butterfly, brown hairstreak butterfly and 13 of the UK’s 18 bat species, have found Knepp.

We wound through a landscape of scrub, marshy hollows, carpets of yellow fleabane flowers and coppices with the Knepp Ecologist, Penny. “It’s like the savannas of southern Africa,” one of our group commented. We saw how hawthorn and brambles were providing perfect natural guards against the browsing deer and cattle, allowing seedling oaks to emerge from the thickets. How the habitats in the former fields are each subtly different, depending upon how they were managed formally and when the herds were introduced to them.

Photo 4: Knepp by Katharine Lowrie

Penny pointed out the turtle dove territories: “They usually include a tall stag-headed tree where the doves can sit and purr, some dense scrub including willow where they can nest and a lagg- the Sussex name for marshy pasture with standing water”.

The role of the Tamworth pigs was also discussed. How the doves are probably benefiting from their rooting. With small seeds (the main diet of the doves) being brought to the surface and their wallows providing water for them. “Having water close to their nest seems really important for the adult turtle doves, as they need to feed their chicks crop milk for the first four-five days of their life”, Penny said.

We were starting to get a feel for what turtle doves require. But some elements of Knepp’s rewildling project were hard to stomach by members of our group. “Being a farmer, even a pasture for life farmer, it’s difficult to see the acres and acres of fleabane and ragwort and pasture being underutilised”, one member commented. Another said, “My only horror moment is the abundance of ragwort!”

Photo 5: Knepp by Katharine Lowrie

The Knepp team, however, are making the wildling project work. Eco-tourism is booming and their game meat is in demand. The animals are left outside all year, with no supplementary feeding or routine medication like antibiotics. The animals ‘self-medicate’ on herbs and shrubs, consequently the meat is high in omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E, selenium and betacarotene (powerful anti-oxidants), and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – one of the most powerful anticarcinogens in nature.

The newly forming wilderness is full of pollinators such as: bumblebees, honey bees, hover flies, beetles, butterflies and moths, providing a huge army of workers for the lucky neighboring landowners whose crops need pollinating. Soil health is improving from the increase in earth worms, nutrients and fungal networks. The land retains water on site, so helping to prevent flooding downstream. Newly created public footpaths and bridleways allow people to enjoy the wildlife and help to combat the mental strains of modern living.

Photo 6: Knepp by Katharine Lowrie

Allowing land to return to nature is clearly not possible everywhere in the UK. Farmland is crucial for food sustainability. But Isabella Tree, co-owner of Knepp and author of ‘Wildling’, reminds us that the world already produces enough food for our 2050 predicted 10 billion population and that 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year. There are many areas where the battle to remain farming would largely be unprofitable if it were not for subsidies. Allowing such land to provide reservoirs for wildlife, pollinators, flood storage and soil amelioration would help the rest of our land.

For the turtle dove, a little more ‘wildling’ might just be the key to its survival in the UK. I know one thing’s clear, our group of farmers and foresters will be digging watery hollows, letting their hedgerows grow up and out, their arable plants return and their marshy areas grow wild. All for the chance that they and their children and grandchildren might hear the turtle dove’s ‘turrr’ once again in Devon.

Photo 7: Turtle Dove by Les Bunyan (rspb-images.com)


For more information about Knepp, click here.  

For more information about turtle doves, click here.

To hear a turtle dove’s call, click here. 


The Exe-to-Teign Facilitation Fund Project was set up in February 2017 by the RSPB as part of a nationwide initiative by Natural England. Facilitation Funds have been created for farmers, foresters, and other land managers together to improve the local natural environment at a landscape scale. If you are a land manager or forester within the Exe-Teign-east Dartmoor area, please contact: Katharine.lowrie@rspb.org.uk for details about how to become a member of the group.

'The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas. This project has received European Union funding under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme’s Facilitation Fund.'