The first ever national turtle dove survey has estimated that just 2,100 pairs of turtle dove now breed in the UK, making it the fastest-declining species in the UK.


This is 98% down from the numbers recorded in the 1970s.

“In the 70s, there were records of flocks of over five hundred birds, and the UK population was estimated at 125,000 pairs," said Conservation Scientist Andrew Stanbury.

Turtle dove on fence post
Turtle doves are 98% down from the numbers recorded in the 1970s/Credit: Ben Andrew,

Turtle doves are the only long-distance migratory dove species in Europe, recognisable by their distinctive 'purring' call. The species is at risk predominantly due to loss of habitat and high levels of hunting when they migrate through south-west Europe to spend winter in Africa.

It is estimated that about 1 million birds were shot every year in south-west Europe until recently.

Turtle dove perched in tree
In 2021, a ban on hunting turtle doves was introduced in France, Spain and Portugal/Credit: Ben Andrew,

"Although these results paint a stark picture with numbers, the way forward is clear and we stand a good chance of turning around the fortunes of this bird. We hope that the 2021 survey will represent the lowest population point,” added Andrew Stanbury.

In 2021, a ban on hunting turtle doves was introduced in France, Spain and Portugal.

Phil Grice, Principal Specialist for Ornithology at Natural England said: “The fact that no hunting is currently permitted on the western European flyway provides us with a huge window of opportunity to reverse the decline in arguably one of England’s most threatened bird species. Providing good nesting habitat (in the form of tall hedges and mature scrub) and abundant seed resources throughout the late spring and summer will be vital, both of which can be delivered through a well-planned and delivered Countryside Stewardship agreement.

To help save the remaining population of turtle doves and reverse the damage done, the RSPB, Fair to Nature, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England have joined forces to create Operation Turtle Dove.

They will restore and create turtle dove breeding habitats across the UK, with a team of advisors recruited to provide guidance to land managers on creating turtle dove habitats and providing supplementary feeding.

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Top image credit: Getty Images


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.