Guest blog from Joscelyne Ashpole and Guy Anderson

Turtle doves need our help. Since 1995, numbers of this iconic farmland bird have dropped by a staggering 94% in the UK. Numbers are also declining across the whole of Europe.

Losses of crucial habitat for the species such as hedges, scrub and wooded areas for nesting, low open vegetation with an abundance of weed seeds for feeding, and small waterbodies or ponds for drinking are among the challenges faced by the turtle dove on its European breeding grounds.

These birds migrate thousands of miles every year, spending the summer in Europe before heading south to sub-Saharan Africa to spend the winter. They cross borders and continents, so it’s crucial that countries all along their migratory route work together to find solutions to help the turtle dove.

That’s why, for the last three years, RSPB and BirdLife International have been working with a range of organisations and stakeholders from across Europe and Africa to develop a set of activities that must take place in order to halt further losses of this once familiar species. The result of three years collaboration and cooperation is the European Turtle Dove Species Action Plan which was launched on 24th May 2018.

The Action Plan outlines what needs to be done across the turtle dove’s range and emphasises the importance of farmland habitats as vital nesting, feeding and drinking sites for this species.

Turtle dove pair perched on machinery, Essex. Image:

While many of the actions are focussed on ensuring that the agricultural landscape can sustain healthy numbers of turtle doves well into the future by providing suitable feeding and nesting sites, emergency feeding measures feature as one of the activities that can be carried out immediately.

Here in the UK, Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership between Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Fair to Nature and RSPB has been testing a supplementary feeding method for the last two years - to make sure that we can find a way of providing seed food that is both effective (i.e. turtle doves find it and eat it) and that is safe – without encouraging pest species, or increasing the risk of disease transmission between birds. Results of these trials have been wholly positive, and detailed guidance and recommendations are now available on the Operation Turtle Dove website.

It’s certainly not too late to start feeding this spring if you are lucky enough to be in an area which still has some turtle doves. It’s also not very expensive. Operation Turtle Dove is already working with a good number of farmers and landowners in East Anglia and South-East England to get feeding sites set up this year. Encouragingly, some have already sent photos of turtle doves feeding on the supplementary seed.

Trail camera footage of a turtle dove using a supplementary feeding plot. Tollesbury, Essex

Of course this isn’t the only activity that needs to happen if we’re to see improvements in turtle dove numbers but it is one that can be done relatively quickly and easily. If you manage land and you are interested in helping to save this much loved bird, visit the Operation Turtle Dove website, where you will find information on creating nesting and feeding habitats and details on how to receive free support and advice from one of the RSPB’s Turtle Dove Conservation Advisors.

The Action Plan marks an important step forward in turtle dove conservation but only if its recommendations are turned into much needed action is taken on the ground, and that can start with providing additional seed where it is needed, right now.