Turtle Doves

A glimmer of hope?
After receiving numerous complaints regarding the depressing content of my blog and several wishes for a post about a species which we can feel positive about. One which we can sit back, with our feet up, and feel secure in the knowledge that in the International year of biodiversity they at least are doing well. I perused the latest breeding bird survey report, and sadly, decided that this was a nearly impossible task. Next time I will have to try much harder. I have instead chosen a species that has suffered the largest declines of any farmland bird, and is potentially one of the most likely to go extinct from England in next decade. I’m truly sorry! I introduce the turtle dove.

And they called it turtle lo-o-o-ove…
The soporific turrrrr of the turtle dove, which in fact led to its sweet name, harks of long, hot, romantic summers. In addition to the loving purr; references in the Old Testament and the fact that they form strong pair bonds have ensured that the dainty dove has become recognised as a symbol of love.

Two turtle doves and a… well, perhaps another one? Fingers crossed!
Turtle doves are the only migratory dove in Europe, migrating from Sahelian Africa to nest in Europe. In the 1970s huge concentrations were recorded at roost sites in Africa with 450,000 at a single Senegalese site, and records of an estimated million in Gambia! In the UK in the 1970s and early 80s, during the beginnings of autumn, turtle doves often collected in flocks of over 300, and during coastal spring migration, flocks of between 1,000-2,000 were recorded. Since the late 1980s such spectacular sights are becoming a fading memory. And this begs the question; will my true love even be able to see two turtle doves?

Turtle doves no longer breed in Wales and could vanish as a breeding bird in England in the near future. They have decreased by a massive 70% since 1994. So just why has the lovely dove lost nearly three quarters of its population and a quarter of its range?

A pitying of turtle doves (they sure have need for this!)
Wherever the turtle doves go, they seem to be suffering from a myriad of threats. In Africa periodic drought and desertification are  likely to be major threats to both African and European sub-species and are expected to worsen as the  climate changes. On migration they fly the gauntlet of European hunters which has led to a heavy toll over several centruies. And in the UK? Changes to farming practices have reduced the availability of the weed seeds on which the turtle dove feeds. This has had a knock on impact upon the number of times they can breed per year, with only one or two attempts now compared with up to four breeding attempts in the 1960s. It seems to me that turtle doves are in need of getting a bit of that mutant ninja turtle dove action going on.

Government budget cuts: the implications
The economic recession, another threat to turtle doves, could reduce funding for the environment and conservation. Eliminating the UK’s deficit within five years requires deep and enduring reductions to budgets of nearly all government departments and their devolved administrations. There is serious concern amongst the conservation sector that structural reform will not compensate a reduction in funding for conservation. There is already a gap in existing funding requirements for conservation and this is inevitably going to get bigger. Both regulation and market-based instruments are critical for encouraging the land management that species need. The vital goods and services managed by farming, as well as environmental stewardship need to be properly supported through state funding mechanisms, as existing markets do not reward such environmental benefits.

Importance of Higher Level scheme (HLS)
Farmland covers 75% of the UK, and has the potential to provide us with a healthy countryside that sustainably produces food, is rich in biodiversity and supports rural industry. Higher-level agri-environment schemes have been an incredibly important mechanism for encouraging the conservation of threatened species throughout the farmed environment. Following strong representations from the RSPB the turtle dove has been accepted as a target species for the HLS in England. It is clear that whilst savings are required from across government, it is essential that core environment funding, such as that for HLS, is protected, as without it our natural environment could be irreparably damaged and species lost forever. Mark Avery’s blog recently had a piece on turtle doves in the context of the economic recession, which makes for an interesting read.

Decisions, decisions
It is vital that decision-making on how the cuts will fall is driven by a long-term consideration of the environment, and by environmental as well as economic needs. Short-term savings could translate to extensive longer-term costs for our economy and well being. Equally crucial is that money channelled into the environment is spent wisely and efficiently. Decisions made by political leaders, in response to financial unrest, will have long-lasting implications for our natural environment, climate and well being. Actions must be made to further rather than threaten progress towards biodiversity restoration and halting its loss, and new policies must not undermine the progress already made.

What is the RSPB doing to help?
In partnership with Natural England, we have begun a three year research project, trialling plots of seed rich crops, sown on farms across East Anglia. The research project aims to test out the theory that a factor in the decline of the birds - which survive solely on seeds - is the loss of types of seed rich arable weeds from the farmed countryside. The project will involve planting trial plots with a mix of seed rich plants like fumitory, clover and vetch and analysing the feeding habits and breeding attempts of local turtle doves over a three-year period.

What you can do to make a difference in the International Year of Biodiversity!
· To all the farmers out there, the RSPB is looking for 16 farms in East Anglia, which already have at least two pairs of nesting turtle doves. Half of these will host two hectare trial plots and half will be control sites with no seed plots. Farmers with trial plots will be compensated for the space taken out of production. Project staff will regularly monitor nests and feeding habits, as well as radio tagging birds.
· One of the ways the RSPB recognises farmers’ hard work and commitment is to run an annual award – the RSPB Nature of Farming Award.  Judging takes place each spring and a short-list of four farmers are put to a public vote - a vote that identifies the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer. The award helps to showcase the work that farmers do to help wildlife and encourages others to follow their example. Please help by casting your vote. It’s quick, it’s simple and it will make a difference.  The vote closes on 27th August, so please vote now at www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote where you will also have the chance to win a luxury spa break. Ooooo!