If you have been lucky enough to hear a gentle purr in Cambridgeshire over the summer months, it may well be the sound of a turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur). This iconic bird has been on the UK Red List since 1996. Declining numbers put the species at serious threat.
Why are turtle doves important?
Turtle doves are unique as the UK’s only migratory dove species – their more common relatives such as the collared dove and wood pigeon stay in the UK all year round. Numbers have declined by 98%. A national survey in 2021 estimated only around 2,100 pairs left, down from 125,000 in 1970. This decline is due to lose of suitable breeding habitat in the UK, and unsustainable levels of hunting on their migratory routes.
There is a huge effort in place to save turtle doves, led by Operation Turtle Dove; a partnership project with the RSPB, Fair to Nature, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England. Operation Turtle Dove is working with farmers, landowners and communities to create nesting and feeding habitats. The turtle dove is one of the NLOW Flagship Species: a list of 25 rare and threatened species that make the Cambridgeshire Fens their home.
How improved habitats will help support turtle doves
The turtle dove is predominantly found in East Anglia and south east England. It feeds in open habitats, commonly on arable and mixed farmland, where its staple food of small wildflower seeds and farmed crop grains are found on the ground. The species needs thick and thorny hedgerows and scrub to nest and roost in near to its feeding grounds, and has also been known to make use of woodland edges and traditional orchards.
Research has revealed that turtle doves are threatened by the loss of suitable nesting habitat, reduced food availability and lack of accessible water during the breeding season. This has resulted in shorter and fewer attempts at nesting.
Working in conjunction with experts from the RSPB, the NLOW team is helping to improve habitat and raise awareness of this vulnerable species. We are working with landowners to establish and manage turtle dove habitat. For example, a new shallow sided farm pond was dug at Queenholme Farm in Willingham. The shallow banks allow easy access for turtle doves and other wildlife. A 250m long mixed native species hedge, with plenty of thorny trees like hawthorn and blackthorn, was planted close to the new pond. This will mature into a thick thorny hedge, suitable for nesting turtle doves. NLOW also helped at Bedwell Hey Farm near Little Thetford. Two more shallow sided farm ponds were dug here, one perfectly positioned alongside a scrubby patch of thorny woodland. NLOW sponsored a new wildflower meadow on the farm – wildflower seeds form an important part of the bird’s diet.
We were also fortunate to arrange a training day with Operation Turtle Dove at Bedwell Hey. Local landowners, farmers and NLOW volunteers were inspired after the visit. We heard from an RSPB Conservation Officer about Operation Turtle Dove and what everyone can do to help the species. We had a tour of the farm where we saw at first-hand the farm’s fantastic ongoing work to support wildlife.
What you can do to support Turtle Doves
NLOW has numerous projects that have been designed to improve wildlife habitats to help turtle doves and the other fenland species. Take a look at our website and join in with one of the work parties or talks near you.
Help support future targeted conservation efforts by recording any sightings of turtle doves and reporting these directly to Operation Turtle Dove.
If you have a garden, you may wish to consider the following activities to support turtle doves and other wildlife:
- Allowing hedges that back onto fields to grow as tall and wide as you can
- Encourage and retain climbing plants such as traveller’s joy (wild clematis), honeysuckle and bramble in hedgerows.
- Provide a water resource such as a bird bath or pond so that turtle doves and other birds have somewhere to drink. Water is vitally important for the adult turtle doves whilst rearing chicks as they produce a nutritious milk-like substance called crop milk to feed to the young birds.
- If you have a large rural garden, maintain scrubby patches and encourage scrub to develop around ponds.
- You can help by planting to supply summer seeds. Consider fumitory, black medick, red and white clover, common vetch, and birds foot trefoil
If you have been inspired to become a volunteer, join a training session or to help improve local habitat working with wildlife experts, please get in touch via email@example.com
New Life on the Old West is a three-year programme, designed and delivered by Cambridgeshire ACRE, a charity dedicated to supporting and strengthening rural communities, with funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund. Wider support comes from close links with over 50 local and regional organisations, specialists, and community groups.