European Turtle Dove Conservation in the UK
By Rob Terrell
European turtles doves (Streptopelia turtur) are a dainty dove primarily found in woodland or scrubland habitats and frequently feeding on agricultural land. These birds are ecologically-unique. Not only are they one of the only species of birds to produce milk, but they are the only long distance migratory dove in Europe, spending winters in West Africa.
However, turtle doves are the most threatened breeding bird in the UK, declining faster than any other bird species. They are listed as Vulnerable on the ICUN Red List and are threatened with global extinction. The population declines is mainly associated with the following factors:
Arguably, food shortages on breeding grounds is the main driver in turtle dove declines.
Turtle doves are the only exclusive seed-eating bird in the Columbidae family in the UK. A change to agricultural practices and increase in chemicals herbicides has led to a lack of seed-rich foraging habitat.
In the UK, this has been associated with a disturbing reduction in nesting attempts, with turtle doves producing half as many chicks than there was 50 years ago.
Turtle doves are important quarry species in some countries, with an estimated hundreds of thousands to millions of doves shot every year, often illegally.
Hunting and persecution of turtle doves may therefore account for a significant proportion of their population decline.
In fact, if hunting is stopped, it is modelled that turtle dove populations should increase by around 5% each year!
A high prevalence of trichomoniasis, carried by a protozoan parasite, is causing adult and nestling mortality amongst turtle doves.
Although disease is a natural population regulator, it can have more damaging and catastrophic impacts to already vulnerable and declining population.
Winter Ground Habitat Loss
After migrating to Africa for winter, these birds gregariously roost within dense scrubs and trees – protecting them from predatory threats.
However, an increasing human population has led to more agricultural land to provide food. The deforestation and land degradation from overgrazing means there is less favourable habitats for the doves.
This has resulted not only in a deteriorated roosting habitat, but has also impacted feeding opportunities.
Turtle Dove Conservation Work
Not all is bad news for the turtle doves! Dedicated organisations and supporting communities across the UK and Europe are helping to turn the population trend around. For example:
- Hunting is banned in the UK and other European states, and is being limited in other countries.
- Many farms and landowners in the UK are adopting wildlife-friendly practices to establish, support, and manage turtle dove habitats to promote breeding and feeding on their land.
- Local communities in South-East England are also creating suitable habitats, as well as planting food and providing supplementary feeding.
- Captive breeding is also being implemented using foster parents, such as Barbary doves. Eggs are removed from turtle doves’ nests and placed under nesting barbary doves. Turtle doves then lay another batch resulting in double the yield of chicks!
Further to this, an International Action Plan for the Conservation of the European Turtle-Dove is currently underway, bringing together stakeholders and organisations from across Africa and Europe to tackle the main threats and reverse this population trend.