Turtle doves they remind me a lot of Audrey Hepburn, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve been out in the recent sun too much! What possible physical similarities do a rapidly declining farmland bird and a famous 1950s film star have in common?


The turtle dove has often been sighted as an emblem of eternal love from the works of Shakespeare to the works of Chaucer. Perhaps it is accurate, as it is possible that a pair bond could extend from one season to the next, simply we don’t know. It also happens that one of Audrey Hepburn’s favourite poems was Unending Love by Rabrindranath Tagore. Additionally in 1961 when she starred in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, turtle doves would have been having up to four broods in a breeding season and then around her final on screen performance in 1990 the birds were producing just one or maybe two broods (one today if you are lucky). From Hepburn’s screen appearances and my views of turtle doves they are both pretty easy on the eye too!

I also like to think she loved nature, as she once said:

“I'm an introvert... I love being by myself, love being outdoors, love taking a long walk with my dogs and looking at the trees, flowers, the sky”

I’ve seen a total of 48 turtle doves this spring and summer, that’s a lot of turtle doves by today’s standards and not many by historic standards of a once very common species. However, I have cheated too, to get my fix of the purring streptopelia I have had to travel to both Spain and France. So in England this year I have seen a total of..(drum roll)..five! Rubbish!

Audrey Hepburn spoke fluent French (along with a long list of other languages) and I have been working with the RSPB’s French Birdlife partner the LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux) in creating habitat in the French stronghold for the species of La Brenne. I’m hoping to describe more of this work together with French wildlife friendly farmers in detail in a future post. Rather aptly, however, the French for turtle dove is tourterelle, which is supposedly onomatopoeic of the song, hence the name in English has nothing to do with the reptile but is a modification of its French name.

Back at home within the remaining areas for the species of the south east and east of England, a team of dedicated RSPB advisers have been working to secure much needed summer seed rich habitats alongside Natural England staff, through the creation and subsequent management of cultivated margins or plots on light land or specifically sown mixtures on heavier land. Working directly with wildlife friendly farmers the early signs have been very encouraging, with the birds using the habitats put in place this summer, funded through both tiers of the governments environmental stewardship schemes.

It is vital to create summer seed rich habitats in the species current core English range so they can produce crop-milk (a milky excretion produced by crop secretions) to feed their young to attempt to turn around their disastrous decline in breeding attempts.

Working together is the strength of Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership of Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, RSPB and Conservation Grade – I firmly believe we have a chance to stop this species becoming the European equivalent of the North American Passenger Pigeon – I can’t imagine a summer without them, can you?

This years Nature of Farming Award finalist Nicholas Watts is one of those very wildlife friendly farmers who not only has turtle dove on his farm but is also doing wonderful things for them, from managing nesting habitats of scrub in field corners to creating summer seed rich habitats through cultivated margins to promote summer seed bearing arable plants.

You can vote for Nicholas here and show your support for farmers like Nicholas doing their upmost to ensure we don’t lose this special and stunning bird, because he and I firmly believe all is not lost and we can turn this around.

As the great Audrey Hepburn once said:

Nothing is impossible, the word itself says 'I'm possible'!