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Farmers needed to help save the disappearing turtle dove

Farmers are being asked to help scientists work out why turtle doves are disappearing from our countryside.

Turtle doves could once be seen on farmland across England and Wales, but they have been in sharp decline for several years. Populations have fallen by 88 per cent since 1970.

The species no longer breeds in Wales and there are fears it could disappear as a breeding bird in England if the Government cuts funding for environmental schemes in the farmed countryside.

Regarded as emblems of devoted love due to the strong bonds formed by pairs, turtle doves have been the subject of poetry by Shakespeare and others, as well as folk songs such as the yuletide favourite 12 Days of Christmas.

The RSPB, in partnership with Natural England, has begun a three year research project, with trial plots of seed rich crops being sown on farms across East Anglia from this Autumn. Birds will be monitored and radio tagged as part of the project.

“We are asking farmers to help us carry out the vital scientific research needed to ensure these birds don’t disappear from our countryside for good,” said RSPB conservation scientist Dr Jenny Dunn. The participating farmers will get the chance to make a real difference for farmland wildlife.

“Turtle doves were once widespread but are now mostly found in East Anglia and south-east England. While they used to breed up to four times a year, recent research shows that they now struggle to get into breeding condition and can only make one or two attempts.

“They are the only migratory bird which survives solely on seeds and we believe a factor in their decline is the loss of certain arable weeds from our farmed countryside. We will be 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.

“We are hoping this research will help create a new option in agri environment stewardship schemes which will be taken up by farmers across the country.”

One farm already on board with the project is the family-run 513ha Lodge Farm in Westhorpe, Suffolk. Cousins Patrick and Brian Barker, who run the farm, are passionate about the wildlife on their land and have worked hard to restore ponds and hedgerows, create a grassland corridor, record farmland bird populations and protect a colony of rare great crested newts.

“Turtle doves have been breeding here for the last couple of years and we have ringed five individuals this year,” said Patrick. “It’s great to see the RSPB involving farmers in a scientific project like this which will benefit an important farmland bird species. I hope we can do our bit to help reverse the decline in turtle doves and bring them back to our countryside.

“We have set our stall out to farm in a way which is as efficient as possible but still benefits wildlife at the same time. We’re fully behind the industry’s Campaign for the Farmed Environment and we are always keen to promote the good work being done by farmers for wildlife, especially through environmental stewardship schemes.”

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. Project staff will regularly monitor nests and feeding habits, as well as radio tagging birds, and farmers with trial plots will be compensated for the space taken out of production.

For more information email Dr Jenny Dunn at

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