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Generous gifts for iconic Christmas birds

Last modified: 18 December 2014

Tristan Reid running the Coniston Lakeland Trails Marathon

Tristan Reid running the Coniston Lakeland Trails Marathon

Image: James Kirby

The turtle dove, which features in one of our best-loved Christmas carols, is in trouble. But this year it has been given a generous gift, thanks to the dedication of two hardworking volunteer fundraisers. 

Inspired partly by 2014 marking the centenary of the extinction of a related bird with an alarmingly similar story, the passenger pigeon, the pair took on gruelling physical challenges, raising over £5,000 between them for turtle dove conservation.

Turtle doves, whose distinctive 'purring' calls once formed part of the UK's summer soundtrack, are in serious decline, with their numbers halving every six years. Their UK population has fallen by 96 per cent since the 1970s, and across Europe they've declined by 74 per cent since 1980.

However, two wildlife conservation heroes have been fighting to reverse those trends by raising money for Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England.

Ecologist Tristan Reid, 39, was inspired by the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The similarities between passenger pigeons and turtle doves are worrying: both are migratory doves, and both declined due to habitat loss, unsustainable hunting and disease. And in both cases the decline in population has been rapid. 

So Tristan, who is from Wigton, Cumbria, challenged himself to run 14 marathons across the country, raising £2,078.05 in sponsorship.

Tristan Reid said: 'September 2014 marked the 100 year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. This was a tragic event that could and should have been avoided. 

'It is imperative that we remember Martha, the last passenger pigeon, and make sure we learn from this loss. We must make sure that the iconic turtle dove does not succumb to the same fate.'

Naturalist Jonny Rankin, 31, and his team began the 'Dove Step' initiative, starting with a sponsored walk covering 300 miles from the Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve in Suffolk and ending in Teeside at the Saltholme reserve. 

In covering 300 miles in 13 days, Dove Step raised £3,002.08 in 2014. Jonny, who is from Bury St Edmunds, also joined Tristan for his final and 14th marathon of the year in October.

Jonny said: 'With such a steep decline in turtle dove numbers, and as they’re one of my favourite birds, I will continue to campaign and undertake endurance challenges until we see a upturn in the UK breeding population.'

'Tristan and Jonny's plans for 2015 include kayaking down the East Anglian coast, cycling 500 miles across France and walking 175 miles to the Spanish border'

Both Tristan and Jonny have fundraising plans for 2015, including an ambitious Dove Step 2 which will include kayaking down the coastline of East Anglia, cycling 500 miles across France and walking the remaining 175 miles to the Spanish border, reflecting the route of the dove's migratory journey. 

Tristan plans to run a minimum of 2,000 miles including 20 marathon distances. He’ll be running two ultra marathons (110 km distances) and also attempting to run the 195 miles of Wainwright's Coast to Coast over four days.

Fundraising efforts like these help support vital conservation work. This year Operation Turtle Dove was able to employ two full-time turtle dove advisers, who gave advice to farmers and landowners on providing habitat for the birds on over 10,000 hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Cambridge.

RSPB Conservation Scientists have been looking at whether the provision of additional food source plants for turtle doves can combat food shortage and the spread of disease. Dr Jenny Dunn and her colleagues at the RSPB and the University of Leeds, supported by Natural England through Action for Birds in England (AfBiE), are looking for a link between availability of food and the health and breeding success of the birds.

RSPB Conservation Director Martin Harper said: 'Tristan, Jonny and their supporters have done amazing work this year supporting turtle dove conservation. Their dedication to the cause is inspiring and we’re thrilled that they are continuing next year. 

'The turtle dove advisers they've helped to fund will be able to pass on the latest advice, based on our research, to make sure we are all doing the best we can to bring these birds back from the brink. 

'We mustn’t forget that these birds are still in trouble and more generous support is needed to help stop these Christmas carol birds from being lost from the UK.'

The RSPB is also working in partnership with building materials supplier CEMEX UK, whose quarries have the potential to provide perfect nesting habitat for the birds. The three-year RSPB/CEMEX UK project will involve growing a mix of turtle dove food plants close to these sites to give the birds a better chance of raising their next generation.

In the future we hope to roll this out in CEMEX sites in France and Spain too as turtle doves only spend part of the year in the UK and so we need to ensure they have food and suitable habitat right across the flyway. Working with partners in Europe and Africa, as well as in the UK, will be vital to saving this bird.

How you can help

Turtle doves have declined by 91 per cent since the 1970s. We are facing the very real possibility of losing this beautiful bird from England. You can fund research to save these iconic birds.

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