Last summer we announced the provisional results of the national Turtle Dove survey. Last week saw the publication of the scientific paper for the survey. This shows that the national Turtle Dove population stood at 2,092 territories in 2021, down from an estimated 125,000 in 1970.

Whilst the results are sobering, work is underway to help this summer resident. The temporary cessation of hunting along their European western flyway provides a vital window of opportunity to scale up the delivery of high-quality breeding habitat and increase food availability in the UK. If the decline is to be reversed, it is important that the new agri-environment scheme in England delivers an increase in suitable Turtle Dove habitats across their current range. Conservation Scientist Andrew Stanbury explains.

Sadly, having declined by an estimated 99% since the late 1960s, the Turtle Dove has the unenviable claim of being the UK’s fastest-declining bird species. As recently as the 1970’s flocks of up to 800 were seen in East Anglia; however, 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 and a new approach was needed.  Therefore, in 2021, we undertook the first national survey of Turtle Doves in the UK.

Turtle dove adult perched on a Hawthorn bush in Bedfordshire (c) Ben Andrew ( 

Firstly, we would like to acknowledge the nearly 1,000 volunteers, farmers, study groups, county bird clubs and other organisations who helped; without whom undertaking this survey would not have been possible, so a big thank you to all those involved.

Survey results

The results show that there were an estimated 2,092 (95% confidence limits, 1,559–2,782) territories left in the UK in 2021, down from an estimated 125,000 in 1970. Over recent decades, the species has become increasingly concentrated in eastern and south-eastern England, with roughly two-thirds of the population estimated to occur in three counties.  

Kent held the largest number (682 territories), representing nearly a third of the population, followed by Suffolk (326 territories) and Essex (300 territories). Important hotspots remain in other eastern counties (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Occupied (black dots) and unoccupied (white dots) national Turtle Dove survey squares in 2021. Grey shading depicts 2007–11 breeding range.

Research shows that the decline of Turtle Doves is being driven by two main factors: the loss of suitable breeding habitat and unsustainable levels of hunting during their migration to Africa. The RSPB and other partnership organisations are currently working on different aspects of Turtle Dove conservation and attempt to slow and turn around the decline.

The hunting moratorium

In 2021, a hunting ban was put in place along the western flyway, covering France, Portugal and Spain, the countries through which all UK-breeding Turtle Doves migrate. 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.

UK breeding habitat provision

The temporary cessation of hunting along their western flyway provides a vital window of opportunity to scale up the delivery of high-quality Turtle Dove breeding habitat and increase food availability in the UK, through agri-environment schemes and other delivery mechanisms.

A package of suitable measures (including scrub/hedgerow management for nesting, food provision through supplementary feeding and arable plot management, and provision of water supplies) is available within the current scheme available in England, Countryside Stewardship. 

It is vital that its successor, ELMS, due to launch in full in 2024, builds upon the management interventions put in place through previous schemes and delivers a net increase in habitat/resource delivery across the current range. This is key to securing a future for the species in the UK.

Operation Turtle Dove

Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership between the RSPB, Fair to Nature, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England, aiming to help reverse the decline in this farmland bird. Through working with farmers, landowners and volunteers who play a key role in supporting Turtle Doves in the UK, this project is targeting the restoration and creation of Turtle Dove breeding habitat.

The Operation Turtle Dove team engaging in Turtle Dove habitat vegetation surveys (c) Sam Turley (

More information, including freely available guidance and advice on managing land for Turtle Doves, is available on the Operation Turtle Dove website.

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 like to repeat the national survey in, or as close as possible to 2026, to assess any population change. The 2021 fieldwork represents a fantastic baseline to measure the impact of the targeted conservation action.


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.

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