Is this the end of the line for turtle doves?

The iconic bird has seen a dramatic decline since 1970 and only 1,000 breeding pairs are thought to remain in the UK.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… only a partridge because turtle doves are sadly vanishing from the English countryside.

A new report by DEFRA shows that numbers of the iconic bird have halved in the five years to the end of 2017. Only 1,000 breeding pairs are now thought to be left in the UK.

Many factors are contributing to cause this decline. The main one, according to the RSPB, is a reduction of nesting attempts during their breeding season in the UK. This, in turn, is linked to habitat loss.

Historically, changes in agriculture, including, states the DEFRA report, ‘the loss of mixed farming systems, the move from spring to autumn sowing of cereal crops, and increased pesticide use,’ have had a detrimental effect on the population of specialist farmland birds like turtle doves, grey partridges, corn buntings and skylarks. In particular, notes the RSPB, the doves are affected by a shortage of seeds and cereal grains during their breeding season, which as a result becomes shorter and less effective.

But the gentle birds, which are down 98% compared to 1970, also face habitat loss in their wintering grounds in Africa and shooting along their migration routes, particularly over the Mediterranean.

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While little can be done about issues abroad, the RSPB is working with farmers to restore the birds’ UK habitats through an initiative called Operation Turtle Dove. The scheme works to ensure the doves have continuous access to weed and crop seed from the moment they arrive from Africa to the end of the breeding season, and can find enough tall, mature hedgerows and areas of scrub where they can nest. ‘They prefer thorny species such as hawthorn and nests are often associated with climbers such as traveller’s joy (wild clematis), honeysuckle or bramble,’ the RSPB experts write on their website.

Although the dove is now almost on the brink of extinction, it is not all doom and gloom for other farmland birds. On average, their decline has slowed down and, in some cases, reversed. While overall numbers are still hugely down compared to 1970 — DEFRA’s 2018 farmland index is about 45% of what it was 48 years earlier — the drop occurred primarily in the 1970s and 80s and the conservation initiatives launched in the past decade to reverse the trend appear to be working. Among the species that showed the greatest increase in the past five years are the goldfinch, the stock dove and the reed bunting.