Turtle Dove conservation - Advice for farmers

Turtle doves are a summer visitor to the UK. They are mostly found on farmland where they nest in thick scrub and feed on the ground on the seeds of wildflowers.

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Turtle doves in brief

In the UK, turtle doves are now largely confined to southern and eastern England. The UK population of turtle doves has declined by 98% since 1967. Research has shown that a loss of suitable and accessible seed food has been the most significant factor in driving the decline of turtle doves in the UK.

We know that there are two things that must be done to recover the population of this long-distance migratory species in the UK: 1) improve productivity by providing the right seed food on their breeding grounds and 2) improve survival of birds on migration by stopping unsustainable levels of hunting. The good news is that we’re making great progress on both fronts.

Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership project between Fair to Nature, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and the RSPB is working with farmers and other land managers to provide suitable habitat for turtle doves in the UK.

If you own or manage land in eastern or southern England then you can play a vital role involved in helping turtle doves. Read on to find out how you can provide feeding and nesting habitat for turtle doves on your land.

Key points

  • Turtle doves require three key breeding season resources, ideally within 300m of each other: seed food, nesting habitat and accessible water. Providing these resources will benefit turtle doves as well as a range of other farmland wildlife.
  • Ensure there is seed food available throughout the spring and summer, for example, by planting a bespoke seed mix or by allowing plants to regenerate naturally. Supplementary feeding is another way of providing turtle doves with food when wild seeds are scarce early in the spring.
  • Maintain tall, thick hedgerows and areas of scrub and allow the shrub layer to develop along woodland edges for nesting.
  • Create, restore or maintain wet features in the landscape such as farm ponds with shallow edges allowing birds access to the water.

What this species needs

A continuous supply of seeds from wild plants and crops from late April until the end of

Both adults and chicks need small seeds of annual and perennial plants. Commonly used examples include clovers, medicks, fumitory, scarlet pimpernel knotgrass, chickweed as well as some crop seeds including oilseed rape and cereal grains.

They feed on the ground in weedy areas, especially where the vegetation is short and sparse, with patches of bare ground and where there are areas of spilt grain and stubbles after harvest.

Tall, wide mature hedgerows, areas of scrub or woodland edges with a thick shrub layer for

Most turtle doves nest in mature, thorny broadleaved scrub or tall, thick hedgerows. They prefer thorny species such as hawthorn and nests are often associated with climbers such as traveller’s joy (wild clematis), honeysuckle or bramble.

How to help

On arable land

  • Plant a bespoke seed mix that will provide turtle doves with the right food plants. The mix should be established in 6m-wide (minimum) blocks between August and mid-October. For more details on establishing this bespoke seed mix, the plants that should be used and the maintenance regime, please visit the Operation Turtle Dove website.
  • Cultivate an area of land and allow plants to naturally grow up. The plants that grow up may provide seeds for turtle doves to feed on. This is particularly useful on lighter soils. For more information on establishing such plots, please visit the Operation Turtle Dove website.
  • Stubbles created early in the summer, particularly from oilseed rape or other small-seeded crops can provide valuable foraging for turtle doves. If possible, leave these stubbles uncultivated until the end of August.

On grassland

  • Introduce sown mix seed plots or natural regeneration areas following cultivation to provide a seedrich habitat in pastoral areas. Wherever there are species-rich meadows which can be restored to hay meadows or clover leys within the rotation, these may provide food for turtle doves on mixed farmland, however access for the birds will need to be considered. Turtle doves require areas of short vegetation with bare ground on which to forage – maintaining patches or strips of low vegetation within any suitable meadows or leys is likely necessary to allow the birds to access the seed.

Hedgerow, woodland edge and scrub management

  • Maintain hedgerows which are wide and more than 3m tall, and retain climbing plants such as traveller’s joy (wild clematis), honeysuckle and bramble in mature hedgerows.
  • Maintain areas of tall scrub around the farm and allow hedges to grow out at hedgerow junctions in field corners to create larger areas of scrub.

Pond management

  • Maintain shrubby edges to woodland blocks and allow these to encroach outwards into fields where appropriate to provide more tall scrub cover for nesting turtle doves. Allowing tall scrub to develop on the northern side of a pond can provide suitable nesting habitat without shading the pond.
  • Avoid management and cutting between March and September (inclusive) as turtle doves can still breed in August.
  • Create or restore farm ponds with shallow edges to allow access for the birds.
  • Ponds should not be shaded on all sides by vegetation – there should be some open areas to allow turtle doves to access the pond.
  • Take action to limit the potential for pesticide or fertiliser contamination of the pond.

Supplementary feeding

  • Providing supplementary seed food for turtle doves when they return to the breeding areas in spring can help adult birds get into good breeding condition and will help to bridge the gap when native wildflower seed is scarce.
  • Operation Turtle Dove has devised a protocol for providing supplementary food for turtle doves.
  • Trials of the protocol have proved it to be effective and safe, with no evidence of increased risk of disease transmission between birds. Therefore, Operation Turtle Dove recommends that the protocol is followed closely to maintain effectiveness and safety. The protocol can be found on the Operation Turtle Dove website.