On the second day of Christmas . . .

PUBLISHED: 12:44 01 November 2015 | UPDATED: 14:24 02 November 2015




Rachael Murray reports on efforts to halt the decline of the iconic turtle dove

Turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, standing on grass, Essex, England, JuneTurtle dove Streptopelia turtur, standing on grass, Essex, England, June

I’m a self confessed foodie, and December represents a delightful slalom of opportunities to over indulge.

I get started with the mince pies early in the month, and work my way through sausage rolls, Stollen and an assortment of spiced biscuits as I head for the main event, the traditional British Christmas dinner. At this time of year, rather than our seasonal wildlife, the first bird that springs to mind is a turkey!

Which is why it’s a good job that one of our favourite Christmas songs always serves to remind me of the wildlife I truly cherish. The Twelve Days of Christmas is becoming a haunting refrain these days, as we head towards the possible extinction of the famed turtle doves in the UK.

The gentle purr of the turtle dove continues to be an evocative sound of summer here in the east, but has become increasingly rare following rapid and sustained population declines. One cause of the decline is thought to be lack of seed and grain as food during breeding, resulting in a much shorter season with fewer nesting attempts.

Turtle doves are the UK’s fastest declining bird species, and the east of England is now the stronghold for this vulnerable group, home to over half the remaining UK population. For every 20 doves we had in 1970, we now only have one. At this rate, the bird’s UK extinction as a nesting species is a real possibility.

However, Christmas is a season of hope, and here in Suffolk, we have reason to hold out hope for turtle doves, thanks to some fantastic people who are committed to reversing the fortunes of this festive icon.

With the help of our friendly Turtle Dove Conservation Officers, individuals and organisations across Suffolk have learned all about the ways they can support the species on their land. Turtle doves feed entirely on seeds from plants that usually grow on arable land, such as common vetch, birds foot trefoil, white and red clover and fumitory.

Stutton Hall Farm was one of the lucky sites to have turtle doves visiting earlier in the year. In fact, during a visit by an RSPB Turtle Dove Conservation Advisor, a well timed turtle dove landed in an oak tree on the farm, confirming that it was happy to relocate if the farm could provide it a suitable home and some food. The farm staff are now working with the RSPB to create some places for foraging, ready for the returning adults next year. Just down the road, Brantham Hall Farm is also integrating wildlife friendly options into a successful farming business by planting an additional 12 acres of a nectar pollen mix designed for turtle doves but also benefiting a whole host of other wildlife including bumblebees and butterflies.

This year some happy campers at Mill Hill farm and campsite, just down the road from RSPB Minsmere, were able to enjoy being woken up with the gentle purring sounds of turtle doves outside their tents. Owner David Watson does a lot to encourage wildlife on to his site providing mosaics of habitat, which are designed to provide the perfect meal and safe nesting sites for turtle doves. Over the summer, he planted over two hectares of nectar flower mix and has recently just sown an acre of fumitory.

And it’s not just big farms that can help. Ipswich Community Gardens are now working with the RSPB to create an area for wildflowers using a special mix of seeds that are the favoured fodder of turtle doves, while down the road The Royal Hospital School in Holbrook has lent a hand too. It identified a space to create a hectare of turtle dove habitat by sowing a bespoke seed mix as part of the new management of its golf course. This year the school’s staff have already been rewarded for their efforts with sightings of turtle doves feeding on the grounds.

Like us, turtle doves need shelter, food and water to survive. One site getting on board with turtle dove conservation has plenty of the latter. Alton Water is the largest fresh water reservoir in Suffolk, providing visiting birds with a much needed drink. With a diet consisting solely of seeds, turtle doves get no fluids from food, so having a drink close by is vital.

With all this support for turtle doves, it is great to know that as we celebrate Christmas some of our county’s most vulnerable wildlife will have safely reached their migration grounds in the south fuelled by a slap up meal here in Suffolk. Now that is something to celebrate!

To find out more about how you can join with the RSPB in helping to save turtle doves, visit www.operationturtledove.org.

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