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University of Worcester Ecologist Advising on Efforts to Halt Decline of Turtle Doves

They are synonymous with Christmas, after making it onto one of the most famous festive songs – The Twelve Days of Christmas.

But as turtle doves suffer a significant decline in the UK, a University of Worcester ecologist is involved in efforts to reverse that trend by ensuring they get the food they need to thrive.

Dr Duncan Westbury, Principal Lecturer in Ecology & Environmental Management, is joining forces with other experts on Operation Turtle Dove, a project led by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).

Dr Westbury said: “The numbers of turtle doves returning to the UK each year and successfully breeding continues to decline despite all efforts to conserve them.  The extinction of yet another bird species from the UK is still a possibility.  I am truly delighted to be involved in this project which seeks to develop new approaches for farmers and landowners to provide sufficient food for turtle doves during the summer months.” 

Turtle doves are the fastest-declining breeding bird in the UK.  Since the 1970s, the UK turtle dove population has fallen by 93 per cent, with these migratory birds facing a range of potential threats from habitat loss and degradation on the breeding and wintering grounds, to hunting and disease.

Research has shown that a principle factor in the decline is a fall in the number of nesting attempts by the turtle doves during the breeding season.  This has been linked to not having the optimal conditions for the birds to breed, due to the loss of suitable habitat and dwindling availability of their natural food sources.

Overall, Operation Turtle Dove aims to reverse the turtle doves’ decline, firstly through research on all stages of their migratory lifecycle – to identify key caused of population decline, and practical conservation solutions, and secondly to deliver these solutions by working with farmers, landowners, communities, business partners and policy-makers. 

Dr Westbury is assisting in a new trial, jointly funded by the RSPB and Natural England, which aims to provide sources of food to turtle doves after they return to their UK breeding grounds in the spring. The two-year trial will see the sowing of seeds to grow specific weeds on plots of land on the edges of farmland in some of the last UK strongholds for turtle doves.  These weeds are known to produce seeds that the turtle doves rely on, including Shepherd’s Purse, Scarlet Pimpernel and Cut-leaved Crane's-bill.

Dr Westbury is advising on what mix of weed species to plant, how to plant them and how to manage the plots to ensure that the turtle doves can access the food produced.

Unlike some bird species who like to hide in undergrowth, turtle doves will not search for food in dense vegetation where they cannot have clear sight of predators, he said.  Therefore, Dr Westbury stressed the importance of not only ensuring that what is grown provides food that the turtle doves will eat, but also taking the necessary measures so that they can get to it. 

If these trial plots are successful in producing the right conditions for the turtle doves to feed and attract them in sufficient numbers, then the project would be rolled out on a larger scale. 

Dr Westbury added: “Turtle doves only eat seed, and typically weedy species that used to be abundant in arable crops, but due to the prevalence of weed-free crops and poor access to any seed produced, turtle doves are struggling to find sufficient food to feed themselves and their chicks.  If these measures were rolled out on a sufficient scale this could make a difference as it has been shown to work for other species.”

Dr Guy Anderson, RSPB project manager for Operation Turtle Dove, said: “Having the expertise of Dr Westbury available to this conservation project is extremely important.  Duncan’s intimate knowledge of agro-ecology, and of turtle dove food plants will accelerate us towards a conservation solution for these birds that is practical, reliable and effective for farmers and land managers to deliver.  We urgently need to get such solutions available on a large scale if we are to succeed in saving the turtle dove in the UK.”

Photo credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)