European Turtle Dove in the Upper Leam Valley: a local extinction in progress?

The European Turtle Dove population in the UK is in freefall decline with numbers decreasing rapidly and the species range in the country contracting to the east. A number of factors have contributed to this situation combining to create an ‘extinction vortex’ which may result in us losing the species altogether. Research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has shown that European Turtle Dove return later to the UK than they used to in spring and arrive in poor condition. The causes of this shift are uncertain but likely to be related to the fact that the species historically fed on a variety of plants which are now regarded as arable weeds. These species such as fumitory and chickweed are now less common as pesticides have been used to control them. This leaves European Turtle Doves with a shortage of food (they are increasingly found foraging around grain stores in farmyards or even on seed put down for garden birds) and they now return late to the UK and produce one brood only instead of two, or increasingly, fail to breed at all. The consequent reduction of productivity would alone be sufficient to cause a long term decline in the UK population, but this is far from the only problem faced by the species. European Turtle Dove is now experiencing problems on the wintering grounds in Africa and massive numbers are shot on migration through the Mediterranean each year depleting a contracting population. Research by Dr. Simon Browne working for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and with the British Trust for Ornithology has also revealed that the favoured nesting habitat for the species is tall, overgrown hedgerows. Modern hedgerow management has resulted in a significant loss of this habitat which may be contributing to the decline. So far the species has survived in the Upper Leam Valley where there is plenty of nesting habitat. As recently as 2009 several pairs could be found at the two localities which were occasionally monitored. However the species has now gone from one of these sites and most of the feeding habitat at the other was removed by a thoughtless landowner in 2011.   In 2012 a small population comprising at least six individuals (2 pairs and 2 apparent singletons) was found on private land at a new locality and working with the generous assistance of the landowners, efforts were made to monitor progress and establish an informal plan to try and stabilise/recover the population. When they first arrived they appeared to be in poor condition, one with loose feathering around the eye and another with a chunk missing from the tail, presumably shot out during migration through the Mediterranean.

European Turtle Dove

European Turtle Dove with tail damage presumably caused by shooting

  I had been told that supplementary feeding was being used at one site in the Midlands and set about researching the pros and cons of trying it with ‘our birds’. Despite the risk that setting up a feeding station may facilitate the transmission of canker I decided it was worth the risk but the supplementary feeding option is one that needs careful consideration and consultation before it is undertaken. This solution is not sustainable but work was also initiated to improve the local environment for the species in the long term. Two feeding stations were set up, one in an occupied territory and one nearby. The weather was atrocious and I held out little hope of confirming use of the feeding stations on my first visit back a week or so after the food was put down. However, I soon found two European Turtle Doves pecking around searching for seeds, even though the food supply had not been replenished.

European Turtle Dove - 1

European Turtle Dove at feeding station

A local couple generously consented to stocking the feeding stations every second day and the birds appeared to be doing well in that there was much singing and display flight activity.

European Turtle Dove - 2

European Turtle Dove in display flight

  A perched pre-copulatory display was also observed. After a while things appeared to settle down and the next development was that the doves started feeding in an area of oil-seed rape fields adjacent to the nesting habitat when the rape seed became available. They could be found there fairly regularly feeding along a farm road. One was seen dropping in to a bare area in the rape field whilst another was even seen to land in the top of a rape plant and feed which may be the first time such behaviour has been documented (Simon Tonkin pers. comm.).   However no young were seen and the birds disappeared abruptly in early July, presumably having failed in any nesting attempts (the appalling weather through the breeding season of 2012 leading to low productivity in many bird species).

European Turtle Dove - 3

For the summer of 2013 I worked with Matt Willmott at Natural England, Kirsty Brannan at the RSPB and Mike Slater at Butterfly Conservation to organise a farmers event aimed at raising awareness and more importantly encouraging landowners to manage for European Turtle Dove, particularly with regard to the provision of early seeding food plants. I was anxious about how many of the birds would come back. However, I was unprepared for the unmitigated disaster which constituted the 2013 season with just one singing bird heard on a single occasion. It is possible that the birds I found in 2012 represented the last season a viable local population was present. The event however was a success with some 20 or so local landowners attending. Short talks in a local village hall were followed by a walk through the old nesting habitat during which a number of people expressed an interest in managing for European Turtle Dove, Dingy and Grizzled Skipper. Since the event a farmer with a large amount of European Turtle Dove habitat (who also has Grizzled Skipper on his land) has entered in to a HLS agreement with Natural England and planted a 3.5 ha mix of early seeding plants which is designed to provide food for European Turtle Dove.

European Turtle Dove - 4

At least two birds were recorded from a second site in the Upper Leam Valley in 2013 which is another traditional locality with plenty of nesting habitat. These birds began feeding on seed put down for wild birds in a garden later in the season so an unofficial supplementary feeding programme is effectively taking place here and another 2 ha of Turtle Dove seed mix have been planted near to this locality under a HLS agreement. Furthermore, people have begun reporting European Turtle Dove records in the county to me with the result that we now have a better picture of where the odd singing birds/pairs remain. Whilst they are very rare there are two loose areas within the county where the species is clinging on so we now know where conservation efforts should be focused if we are to try and retain European Turtle Dove as a breeding bird and not just a memory. Indeed, early work plotting localities on OS maps (undertaken by Kirsty Brannan at the RSPB) appears to suggest that one of the principal determinants of the species presence in central Warwickshire is the presence of suitable nesting habitat in the form of disused railways and canals. Warwickshire falls outside the core area (which is principally in East Anglia) of the remaining range of European Turtle Dove in the UK. The Operation Turtle Dove (http://operationturtledove.org/) partnership between Natural England, RSPB, Conservation Grade and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust is confining its efforts to the core area (so as to maximise effectiveness by concentrating on viable populations). As a result of the impetus provided by the farmers event, efforts to prevent the local extinction of the species in Warwickshire are now being co-ordinated and there is a possibility that aspects of this project could be used as a ‘blueprint’ for actions in other Midlands counties such as Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire.

2014 Update

I am delighted to report that in the summer of 2014 the two remaining European Turtle Dove localities in the Upper Leam Valley both held singing birds which were apparently paired. Supplementary feeding was again undertaken and one of the ‘pairs’ was seen using an area which was lying fallow prior to the planting of an early seed mix specifically designed for the species. Following on from the event organised in 2013 Cemex and the RSPB have recently announced plans to plant early seed mixes designed for European Turtle Dove at four quarry sites in the UK. One of these sites is Southam Quarry on the edge of the Upper Leam Valley (Cemex/RSPB Turtle Dove Project) Elsewhere in Warwickshire there was further encouraging news. At the best site in the county, a farmer who is all too aware of the significance of the continued presence of the species on his land has been planting early seed mixes for the last three years. He has also been putting down grain and monitoring the feeding site with remote cameras. In 2014 he filmed six birds together where previously his best count had been four. In August came confirmation of breeding success when a juvenile was seen nearby. Surveys by Rainsbrook Ecology of a ‘re-wilding’ forestry project found a new pair some ten miles or so from this site in May. A meeting to discuss the provision of early seed mixes within the management plans of this project, which is creating extensive breeding habitat for European Turtle Dove, is planned. During 2014 the species was recorded from most of the sites or areas occupied the previous year in Warwickshire and it was also found at two new sites. More importantly there was confirmation of breeding and an indication that the number of birds at the stronghold locality may have increased by a pair.   We may or may not save European Turtle Dove as a breeding species in Warwickshire but without people like those mentioned above, we will definitely lose it.

2015 Update

A pair of European Turtle Dove were present at both of the remaining localities in the Upper Leam Valley during the 2015 breeding season. It is not known whether they produced young but the prospects were improved by the establishment of a tailored bird mix immediately adjacent to one of the traditional territories.

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Mix established for European Turtle Dove, Upper Leam Valley. Photo by Kirsty Brannan Note the bare patches.

Experience here and elsewhere in the county highlighted the need for these mixes to be managed by ‘topping’ species such as Groundsel before they become too dominant and shade out the preferred planted species e.g. Fumitory. Research by the RSPB has shown that European Turtle Dove requires bare ground throughout the breeding season and this seems likely to be one of the key limiting factors in the Midlands region. It may be another reason that the species current distribution in Warwickshire is so closely tied to disused railways and quarries. It also means that sown mixes must be scarified in June contributing to the ‘high maintenance’ nature of this agri-environment scheme option.   When managed well however the results are encouraging.

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Seeding Fumitory in a Turtle Dove mix in the Upper Leam Valley. Photo by Kirsty Brannan

On 16/05/15 David Wilding visited from Otmoor RSPB reserve to look at the mix prior to buying seed and establishing a mix at Otmoor which has become somewhat famous for its European Turtle Dove population. Though there are only a few birds present there each year they are comparatively easy to see which has led to them becoming the principal visitor draw at the reserve in summer. Additional mixes have been established under the HLS scheme on nearby farms. These mixes were planted under advice from Kirsty Brannan from the RSPB office in Banbury who also helped organise the farmer’s event in the Upper Leam Valley in 2013. The hope expressed earlier in these pages that the work in the Upper Leam Valley may inspire and inform efforts elsewhere has thus been realised. Elsewhere in the county European Turtle Dove was recorded from at least three other sites giving a total of five occupied localities in 2015, down from the eight occupied the previous year. The species continues to breed at the stronghold locality with at least two juveniles observed. Various changes are likely to take place here and I am making efforts to ensure that the area continues to support a European Turtle Dove population. As mentioned in the 2014 update I met with the managers of a large re-wilding project who are planning a land purchase nearby and am delighted to report that in principle they are happy to establish a mix. This could be very important as the tenancy of the one farm in the area with mixes will eventually change and the management may well change with it.

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