RSPB Press Release

A new landscape scale conservation initiative is bringing together farmers, landowners, businesses, communities and conservation organisations near Maldon, to help one of Britain’s fastest declining birds, the turtle dove.

The ‘Turtle Dove Friendly Zone’ – the first of its kind in Essex – has been established as part of Operation Turtle Dove, a multi-partner project that aims to save turtle doves from extinction in the UK.

Once common in the British countryside, where their distinctive turr-turr call was an evocative sound of summer, in the last 20 years we have lost more than 94 per cent of our breeding turtle doves in the UK. More than half the UK’s remaining turtle doves breed in East Anglia, with ‘hotspots’ in parts of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

The new Maldon Turtle Dove Friendly Zone is one such hotspot, and each spring, turtle doves that have spent the winter thousands of miles away in Africa arrive in search of a mate and somewhere to nest. Nature reserves such as Essex Wildlife Trust’s Abberton Reservoir and RSPB Old Hall Marshes are playing their part in providing homes for turtle doves, but nature reserves can only be part of the answer. It is hoped that bringing together people to manage land within the Turtle Dove Friendly Zone for turtle doves will help to create more habitat for the threatened birds outside of nature reserves, in the wider Essex countryside.

Emma Stobart, RSPB and Operation Turtle Dove farm conservation officer: “We are used to thinking of extinction as something that happens in other countries or in the distant past, but without urgent action the loss of turtle doves from the UK is a very real possibility. Only by restoring lost habitat in the wider countryside and farmed landscape can we hope to turn things around for turtle doves. Fortunately, there are lots of farmers and landowners already doing this. Bringing them together to pool their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm, and encouraging others to do what they can to help, will make these efforts all the more effective.”

Marc Outten, Reserves Manager (South) for Essex Wildlife Trust says: “Parts of Essex remain something of a stronghold for this wonderful species - it’s great that through collaborative partnerships and specific habitat management we can boost the battle to reverse the turtle dove’s bleak fortunes. This year saw turtle doves visiting a number of Essex Wildlife Trust reserves, including a pair that successfully bred at Abbotts Hall Farm, home to our main offices, regular sightings from Fingringhoe Wick and Chigborough Lakes and a remarkable record of 14 birds spotted at Wrabness.”

Why are we losing our turtle doves?

The main cause of turtle dove decline in the UK is the loss of food for the birds from the countryside. Turtle doves eat the fallen seeds of arable plants like fumitory and knotgrass that are usually thought of as weeds. These have become more and more scarce in the farmed landscape due to increased herbicide use and intensification of farming to use as much of the available land as possible to produce crops.

As migrating birds, turtle doves also face many threats and pressures outside this country, including hunting and the challenge of crossing the Sahara Desert and finding enough food and water to survive the winter in Africa.

What can we do about it?

Operation Turtle Dove is working with international partners to better understand the impact that pressures outside the UK are having on turtle dove numbers. Ultimately though, only by restoring lost feeding and nesting habitat will we be able to turn things around for this rapidly disappearing dove here in UK.

Fortunately, more and more farmers and other landowners are starting to help turtle doves by creating the breeding and feeding habitat they need, often with valuable financial and practical support from agri-environment schemes.

Farmers and landowners/managers interested in finding out what they can do to help turtle doves, including more about Turtle Dove Friendly Zones, should contact Emma Stobart: emma.stobart@rspb.org.uk.

There is also lots of useful information and advice on the Operation Turtle Dove website: www.operationturtledove.org, and on the Farm Wildlife website: www.farmwildlife.info

Follow Operation Turtle Dove on Twitter: @SaveTurtleDoves

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