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Just 2,100 pairs of turtle doves now breed in the UK, the first national survey of the highly threatened bird shows.
Numbers of the turtle dove – long considered a symbol of love – have fallen 98% since the 1970s, mainly due to loss of habitat in UK breeding grounds and unsustainable hunting as it migrates over Europe to and from Africa.
Research last year by volunteers, farmers, study groups, county bird clubs and other organisations, recording turtle doves across their UK range, shows there are now an estimated 2,100 pairs, down from 125,000 in 1970.
But wildlife charity the RSPB said there is hope for the species, with solutions now in place to tackle the threats it faces.
That includes Operation Turtle Dove – a partnership of conservation organisations driving efforts to restore and create habitat for the birds to breed in the UK, with advisers to help land managers create the scrub and tall hedges they need and provide them with extra seed food.
The RPSB said it is imperative that new agri-environmental schemes in England, which are replacing EU payments for farming after Brexit, continue to support farmers who implement wildlife-friendly measures on their land.
Turtle doves are also threatened by unsustainable hunting practices which saw an estimated million birds a year shot in south-west Europe until recently, including migratory birds passing between Europe and Africa.
But in 2021, for the first time, no hunting of turtle doves was permitted in France, Spain or Portugal.
Turtle doves, the only long-distance migratory dove species in Europe, are known for their “purring” call and the scalloped pattern on their wing feathers – as well as their appearance in the song The Twelve Days Of Christmas.
The species is now concentrated in south-eastern and eastern England as far north as Yorkshire, the survey shows.
Andrew Stanbury, conservation scientist with the RSPB, said: “In the ’70s, there were records of flocks of over 500 birds, and the UK population was estimated at 125,000 pairs.
“Although these results paint a stark picture with numbers, the way forward is clear and we stand a good chance of turning around the fortunes of this bird.
“We hope that the 2021 survey will represent the lowest population point.”
Phil Grice, principal specialist for ornithology at Government conservation agency Natural England, said: “The fact that no hunting is currently permitted on the western European flyway provides us with a huge window of opportunity to reverse the decline in arguably one of England’s most threatened bird species.
“Providing good nesting habitat, in the form of tall hedges and mature scrub, and abundant seed resources throughout the late spring and summer will be vital.”
He said both these needed elements could be delivered through a well-planned and delivered agri-environment plan.