Turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, perched in tree, Essex

Turtle dove

The turtle dove occurs on arable and mixed farmland which offers suitable nesting habitat.

Turtle doves in brief

Within the UK it is largely confined to the south and east. The UK population of turtle doves fell by 77 per cent between 1970 and 2001*; this was probably because fewer seed sources were available to them on farmland. The turtle dove is a summer visitor to the UK, arriving in late April and leaving at the end of August.

*Data source: British Trust for Ornithology

Key points

  • Ensure there is seed food available throughout the spring and summer.
  • Maintain tall, thick hedgerows, areas of scrub on the farm and allow the shrub layer to develop along woodland edges for nesting.
  • Cultivated uncropped margins, conservation headlands, wildlife seed mixtures, woodland edge management and enhanced hedgerow management are all options under the Defra Entry Level Stewardship which will benefit turtle doves.

What this species needs

A continuous supply of weed and crop seed from late April until the end of August

Both adult and chick turtle doves depend on the availability of seeds, especially those of fumitory, knotgrass, chickweed, oilseed rape and cereal grains. 

They feed on the ground in weedy areas, especially where the vegetation is short and sparse and where there are areas of spilt grain and stubbles after harvest. Lack of seed food is probably the major factor limiting the breeding success of turtle doves.

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

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

Turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, pair perched on agricultural machinery, Essex, England,

How to help

On set-aside

  • Small plots of wild bird cover can be created using a biennial mix of seed-bearing plants such as kale, cereal and quinoa. For turtle doves, ensure that at least two plots are created in alternate years so some seed is available in the spring every year. Use a low seed rate to create an open crop, which will give turtle doves access to the ground as well as allowing some weeds to germinate and seed.
  • Natural re-generation on rotational set-aside provides a useful seed source, provided that weed control can be delayed until July. 
  • A derogation can be sought to cultivate an area of non-rotational set-aside each year to allow broad-leaved weeds to germinate and seed, providing a food source for turtle doves. Choose an area with a diverse range of broad-leaved weeds, but with low numbers of the highly-competitive grass weeds and cleavers.

On arable land

  • Where there are field margins with a variety of broad-leaved arable plants which are not highly competitive with the crop, cultivate the margins each year but leave them undrilled, unfertilised and unsprayed so they will create a seed source for turtle doves. ‘Uncropped cultivated margins’ is an option under the Defra Entry Level Stewardship. 
  • Adopt conservation headlands. Avoid spraying the outer six metres of cereal fields with herbicides targeted at broad-leaved weeds - this will provide a seed-rich margin. 
  • For turtle doves, it is best to do this in conjunction with an unfertilised headland to produce a shorter sparse crop. This can now be undertaken within the Defra Entry Level Stewardship. You can get agronomic advice from the Game Conservancy Trust.
  • Leave stubbles uncultivated until the end of August to provide seed food for turtle doves until they migrate south. The rotational and wild bird cover options of set-aside described above are important on farms where seed sources are limited in the spring.
  • Alternatively, wild bird seed mixtures are an option under the Defra Entry Level Stewardship which will benefit turtle doves.

On grassland

  • Introduce arable crops on livestock farms (except maize) or create small plots of wild bird seed mixture to provide a seed-rich habitat in pastoral areas. Wherever there are species-rich meadows which can be restored to hay meadows or clover leys within the rotation, these will boost food availability for turtle doves on mixed farmland.

Hedgerow, woodland edge and scrub management

  • Maintain hedgerows which are wide and more than four metres 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. 
  • 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.
Turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, standing on grass, Essex