Today see’s the publication of the UK national turtle dove survey, highlighting that the population now stands at around 2,100 territories, down from an estimated 125,000 in 1970. However, whilst the results are sobering, there is hope for this summer resident. Conservation Scientist Andrew Stanbury explains
In 2021 we undertook the first national survey of turtle doves in the UK and today saw the publication of the provisional results. The 2021 National Turtle Dove Survey was a partnership project coordinated by the RSPB, Rare Breeding Birds Panel and Kent Ornithological Society, with support from British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The survey was funded as part of ‘Action for Birds in England’, a conservation partnership between Natural England and the RSPB.
Turtle doves are the only long-distance migratory dove species in Europe © Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Firstly, we would like to acknowledge the nearly 1000 volunteers, farmers, study groups, county bird clubs and other organisations who helped by either carrying out a survey, coordinating them, or allowing access for a survey to take place; without whom undertaking this survey would not have been possible, so a big thank you to all those involved.
Having declined by 98% since the 1970s, the turtle dove has the unenviable claim of being the UK’s fastest-declining bird species. The population is now at such a low level that the established long-term monitoring scheme in the UK, the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey, is no longer able to produce robust population trends; therefore, a new approach was needed to give us a comprehensive overview of the current size and distribution of the UK's remaining breeding turtle dove population.
2021 saw the first dedicated national Turtle Dove survey take place. The aims of the survey were to provide a revised population estimate for the UK and a create new baseline to help monitor future trends and the effectiveness of current conservation interventions.
A total of 1,643 one-kilometre squares were surveyed across their UK range last year, which is an amazing effort. The provisional results show that there are only around 2,100 territories left in the UK, down from an estimated 125,000 in 1970.
Map showing occupied (black dots) and unoccupied (white dots) National Turtle Dove Survey squares in 2021. One additional unoccupied square was surveyed in Cornwall.
The species is increasingly becoming concentrated in eastern and south-eastern England, with Kent, Suffolk and Essex holding most of the population; however, other hotspots remain in eastern counties up to North Yorkshire. We are planning to submit a scientific paper on the survey soon and this will need to go through the peer review process, so the results are provisional at this stage.
We encourage everyone to continue to look out for Turtle Doves and submit sightings to Birdtrack. Every record helps improve the picture and target conservation action for Turtle Doves more effectively.
It’s hard to imagine now, that there were records of flocks of up to 800 Turtle Doves in East Anglia during the 1970s. However, the RSPB and other partnership organisations are currently working on different aspects of Turtle Dove conservation, and it is hoped that the 2021 survey will represent the lowest population point.
Research shows that the decline of turtle doves is being driven by two main factors: the loss of suitable habitat on the breeding grounds and unsustainable levels of hunting when they migrate through south-west Europe on spend the winter in Africa.
Breeding habitat is critical
Identifying factors driving the decline have helped determine the solutions. This includes working with farmers, landowners and volunteers who play a key role in supporting turtle doves in the UK. Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership between the RSPB, Fair to Nature, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England, aimed at reversing the decline in this farmland bird. The project is targeting the restoration and creation of turtle dove breeding habitat, which holds the key to securing a future for turtle doves in the UK.
Conservation advisors in key counties are on hand to provide guidance to landowners and farmers on creating turtle dove habitat and providing supplementary feeding. More information, including freely available guidance and advice on managing land for Turtle Doves, is available on the Operation Turtle Dove website.
Nicole Khan, turtle dove conservation advisor for Kent, advising on habitat
Providing suitable habitat for nesting and feeding is critical to ensuring this species success. It is important that the new agri-environment schemes in England continue to support farmers who implement wildlife-friendly measures on their land.
Hunting on the flyway
Turtle doves are also threatened by unsustainable hunting on migration. In 2021, a hunting ban was put in place along the western flyway, covering France, Portugal and Spain. These are the three European countries through which all turtle doves that breed in North-western Europe, including the UK, migrate.
Over a million turtle doves have been hunted annually in these countries in recent years. There is every expectation that this ban will be repeated over the next few years at least, as part of a long-term strategy, agreed and being driven by the European Commission, to ensure that any future hunting is carried out on a truly sustainable basis.
The RSPB played a pivotal role in developing the science, species action planning, and international policy work, that led to the hunting ban, and calls for a sustainable long-term management system that will allow the recovery of the species on a continental scale. More information here.
If we can get both conservation approaches running simultaneously then we stand a very good chance of recovering the population in the long run. Ideally, we would be keen to repeat the national survey in around 5 years’ time to assess any population change, and the 2021 fieldwork represents a fantastic baseline to measure the impact of the targeted conservation action.
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