Falling in dove: the dramatic decline of an icon of summer
Last modified: 30 November 2011
Turtle doves are now the UK’s most threatened farmland bird, according to official figures released today.
The migratory birds, which rely on seed-rich wildflowers and weeds in our countryside, have an important place in British folklore and feature in the traditional Christmas song the 12 Days of Christmas.
According to the figures turtle dove populations fell 21 percent between 2009 and 2010. Numbers have been falling since the 1970s, and it is now estimated there are only seven turtle doves for every 100 there were in 1970; a decline even greater than other struggling farmland species such as tree sparrows and corn buntings.
Urgent work is underway to investigate the cause of turtle dove declines and create measures to help them. The RSPB is in the middle of a three year project working with farmers to test trial plots of seed rich plants and monitor nearby turtle dove populations.
The overall indicator for all farmland birds has fallen again, meaning farmland bird species are at their lowest levels since records began in 1970. The latest UK Wild Bird Indicators, published by Defra, the RSPB and the BTO, cover the period up to summer 2010 and also cover seabirds, woodland birds and wetland birds.
We should welcome the increase of some species, but we seem to be facing a growing number of threats
As well as turtle doves, other farmland species whose decline are causing concern for conservationists include starlings, yellow wagtails, lapwing and greenfinch. While the changes to our countryside are factors in the decline of most farmland species, greenfinch numbers are falling due to the disease trichomoniasis.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “These official figures once again show that farmland wildlife is struggling in our countryside.
“The decline of the turtle dove is particularly worrying. This is a beautiful bird which has an iconic connection with the British rural landscape and we are only now starting to discover what is causing its population to plummet so alarmingly.”
With the help of farmers the RSPB is trying to develop ways to bring the right mix of seed rich plants into the farmed countryside so that they can thrive and breed here once again. But as they are migratory birds there may be other factors in their decline, such as illegal hunting in the Mediterranean and changes in land use in Africa.
All farmland birds have their own specific requirements and there is a small army of farmers out there who are putting in place wildflower margins and skylark plots, leaving their stubble unploughed over the winter and taking care not to overgraze their land so that these species have space to forage, nest and feed their young.
Martin Harper added: “If it wasn’t for these passionate custodians of our countryside, the situation would be a lot worse. But clearly more still needs to be done. We cannot stand by and allow the European Commission to undermine the Common Agricultural Policy’s support for environmental stewardship schemes, and we must be constantly striving to make those schemes as efficient and effective as possible.”
The figures released today show that farmland birds are at 50 percent of the level they were at in 1970. Grey partridges, tree sparrows and corn buntings are all at similar low levels to turtle doves although the doves’ current rate of decline is steeper.
Goldfinches have seen the highest increases on farmland in the latest indicator update with whitethroats, stock doves, woodpigeons and jackdaws all seeing small increases.
Martin Harper added: “We should welcome the increase of some species, but we seem to be facing a growing number of threats. The Chancellor’s determination yesterday to rip up the environmental rule book drove a particularly icy blast across an increasingly bleak landscape for wildlife.”
Woodland birds are now at 81 percent of their original levels. Nuthatches, long tailed tits and blackcaps have all seen increases in the new figures, while wood warblers, lesser spotted woodpeckers and nightingales all continue to fare badly. Sparrowhawk populations have fallen for the fifth year running.
Despite concerns over breeding failures in kittiwake and Arctic skua populations, seabirds remain at almost a third above their 1970 levels while wetland bird populations remain stable.
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