Turtle doves 'nearing UK extinction because of farming practices'

Victoria Ward
A European turtle dove - PA

Turtle doves are on the brink of extinction in the UK because of farming practices, it has been claimed.

Numbers have plummeted by 70 per cent in five years, leading the RSPB to call for an urgent “overhaul” of the current agricultural system as the UK leaves the EU and its system of subsidies, to support wildlife and farming.

Latest statistics from the Environment Department (Defra) revealed that birds living and breeding on the UK's farmland saw numbers tumble by almost a tenth between 2010 and 2015.

Their populations have declined by 56 per cent since 1970, largely due to agricultural changes including the loss of mixed farming, a switch to autumn sowing of crops, a reduction in hay meadows and the stripping out of hedgerows.

Corn buntings, grey partridge and tree sparrows are among the species which have suffered “severe” declines of more than 90 per cent since 1970.

Capercaillie and willow tit have also seen a similarly concerning reduction in numbers over the same period.

Numbers of grey partridge have also declined Credit: Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust/PA

But while the majority of the decline happened in between the late 1970s and 1980s as farming practices changed rapidly, there was a nine per cent decline between 2010 and 2015.

The data showed some "specialist" species, those restricted to or highly dependent on farmland habitats, had seen precipitous falls.

But the fall was most dramatic for turtle doves, a traditional symbol of love and fidelity, with numbers down 71 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

The decline in UK numbers of the birds, which migrate from wintering grounds in Africa to breed in Europe, is mirrored across the continent and conservationists have warned the turtle dove is at risk of going extinct globally.

The sharp drop in numbers is thought to be down to a lack of seeds from arable plants which has shortened their breeding season and led to fewer nesting attempts.

The RSPB's head of land use policy, Jenna Hegarty, said: "Birdsong from some of our most iconic species once filled the air, but for many years the soundtrack of our countryside - from the song of the skylark to the purr of the turtle dove - has become quieter and quieter.

The endangered tree sparrow Credit:  David Burges

"Today's figures show the number of farmland birds continues to drop. The farmland bird indicator has fallen by nine per cent in the last five years - the worst period of decline since the late 1980s.

"Many farmers are doing great things, and without their efforts, today's figures would undoubtedly be worse.

"But the current agriculture system doesn't work for our farmers or our natural environment, something needs to change.

"Leaving the EU gives us a seminal opportunity to overhaul the system, and use public money to build a more sustainable future, reversing the dramatic declines in farmland wildlife and supporting resilient and thriving farm businesses into the future."

Elsewhere in the countryside, woodland birds have seen numbers remain relatively stable over the last five years, although they are down almost a quarter since 1970.

Across all species, including farmland, woodland, wetland and waterbirds and seabirds, numbers are down around eight per cent on 1970, the figures show.

Some species, such as stock doves and goldfinches, saw populations double.

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