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Farming for turtle doves in West Sussex

Last modified: 10 September 2013

Turtle dove

Image: Andy Bright

Turtle doves are summer visitors to the UK, once a common sight across farmland; they have since faced a sharp decline in numbers. The most recent figures show that the population in the south east has fallen by 86 per cent since 1994.

Easily distinguished from species such as collared dove or wood pigeon by their diminutive size, striking chestnut and black mottled colouring on the wings and black and white ‘bar-code’ like patch on the neck, turtle doves are however, more often heard than seen. Their distinctive, gentle, purring song has long been a characteristic sound of summer.

The species no longer breeds in Wales and there are fears it could soon disappear as a breeding bird in England too, with only a few strongholds remaining in south east England and East Anglia.

Hayley New, RSPB Agricultural Projects Officer for the south east said: “Turtle dove numbers are reaching drastically low levels; the prospect of losing this beautiful bird from our shores is becoming increasingly real.

"They were once widespread but have suffered a massive decline in the south east in the last few decades alone.  A reduction in breeding attempts from up to four per year to just one has had a huge impact on the population numbers.”

In response to the turtle dove’s plight, conservationists embarked on an urgent mission to save one of the UK’s most threatened birds from extinction. Operation Turtle Dove was launched in May 2012 by the RSPB, leading sustainable farming specialists Conservation Grade and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust in Norfolk with support from Natural England; it is a three-year project to reverse the decline of one of England’s best-loved farmland birds. 

The cause of the population crash is not fully understood and research is ongoing into factors affecting the species during their time spent outside the UK. When they arrive in the UK to breed each spring however, they depend on small seeds from wild plants to get into breeding condition and changes in farming practices mean these plants are now scarce in our countryside.

In order to combat and research against the loss of the turtle dove, conservationists embarked on an urgent mission to save the UK’s most threatened farmland bird from extinction. Operation Turtle Dove was launched in May 2012 by the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England.

Hayley added: “There are a number of options available to farmers; they can choose to sow the turtle dove seed mix which provides optimal foraging habitat or to cultivate uncropped margins that allow the arable weeds in the natural seed bed to flourish. Now is the perfect time to act and it would be great for farmers looking to help these special birds to get in touch for more advice on how to make these options work for them.

“The options will also benefit a range of other wildlife, including pollinating insects such as bumblebees and butterflies which could also do with a helping hand in spring and summer.

“We are really proud of our wildlife friendly farmers in West Sussex who are already doing fantastic work for wildlife and the environment through agri-environment schemes as well as voluntarily. Farming in this way can make a real difference to the turtle dove and is necessary for its survival in England.”

Landowners in West Sussex who are signed up to Environmental Stewardship schemes, play a vital role in supporting key species and habitats, as well as making the countryside attractive and accessible for the public.

The general public have also played their part this summer with record numbers of calls to the Operation Turtle Dove sightings hotline (01603 697527). These calls are vital in making sure that advice is targeted to the right areas. Public support also allows RSPB Reserves in West Sussex to flourish; Pagham Harbour are doing their bit and implementing plots of the turtle dove mix this year and we are working with others to achieve the same.

For further advice on helping the turtle dove, please call Hayley New on 01273 763616 or email

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