Turtle doves: The sad plight of the bird made famous by one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time

Dainty, smaller and darker than its collared cousin, the turtle dove is in danger of dying out, but not if a new Norfolk-based trust has anything to do with it, says Robin Page.

I must confess to being in a state of vigorous competition with a manic birdwatcher at the moment — our 10-year-old grandson, Henry. I’m very pleased that he’s wildlife-crazy, but it does put all my books in danger, particularly my favourite — which has also become his — Birdsong: 150 British and Irish Birds and Their Amazing Sounds. It’s a fantastic book, although, sadly, I believe it’s already out of print. It seems that half my life is now spent preventing Henry from taking the book home with him. The other half is spent listening to wonderful recordings of both the turtle dove and the cuckoo’s calls.

This summer, it’s my ambition to show Henry turtle doves and to let him hear for himself the wonderful purring call of the summer bird, which I have not heard on my Cambridgeshire farm for far too many years. Then, the last badly built nest was quickly predated, I suspect by one of those dark marauding birds that Wild Justice wants to protect. What a bizarre world we live in.

There’s only one word to describe the decline of the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) and that’s tragic. According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), between 1967 and 2018 (only 51 years), numbers of turtle doves declined by 98%. In 2020, it was estimated that the breeding population was a mere 3,600 pairs. Yet Anthony Cheffings, a good Kenyan friend of mine who has just been to Chad, found hundreds of thousands of wintering turtle doves there. Saying there were ‘too many to count’, he’s assuming that they were birds from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Never mind. I was recently told of a new trust — the Turtle Dove Trust — which is one of the most urgently needed charities in the country. It was co-founded by Bill Makins, a man whose life story of wildlife capture and breeding is one of dedication and adventure. Sadly, Makins died last month and will be very badly missed. But one of his trustees is the great Chris Knights, the man who almost single-handedly saved the stone curlew in East Anglia and a farmer, who also became one of Britain’s top wildlife photographers and has won the Bird Photographer of the Year award three times.

The other trustee is Ed Pope, who’s turned part of his farm near King’s Lynn in Norfolk into the Watatunga Wildlife Reserve, which specialises in deer, antelope and storks. On a recent visit there, I was afforded an astonishing close-up view of the bongo, that endangered forest antelope from Africa. It was incredible, not least because I got a much better look at them than I have ever done in Kenya.

Why are turtle doves in The 12 Days of Christmas?

Turtle doves have long been traditional symbols of friendship and devoted love in literature and lore going back thousands of years — there’s a fascinating run-down here which looks at some of the many references, not the least of which are the turtle doves which pulled the chariot of Aphordite and Shakespeare’s rather obscure poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. By far the turtle dove’s most famous appearance, however, is in The 12 Days of Christmas, the traditional seasonal song whose first appearance is thought to date to around 1780, though the song is certainly much older. A pair of turtle doves are given as a present on day two; by the end of the poem, ‘my true love’ has given 22 turtle doves to ‘me’.

The aim of the Turtle Dove Trust is simple and self-explanatory: to breed and release turtle doves and to spread the message that they desperately need help — not tomorrow or next year, but now. With releases each year, it’s hoped that some turtle doves will resist the urge to migrate and that farmers can be encouraged to leave habitat around field edges where the birds can feed, breed and forage. The reason for the plunging population is not difficult to understand. Many ‘modern’ farmers do not leave space for wildlife and, where there’s space, predators have moved in with drastic results.

The trust’s breeding programme is carried out by an expert aviculturist, Trevor Lay, whom I first met 40 years ago when he was concentrating on wildfowl. Nowadays, nearly all his energy is spent breeding turtle doves and wallabies (yes, white wallabies) in captivity through his business, Waveney Wildlife.

Turtle Dove breeder Trevor Lay. Credit: Chris Knights

His work on the turtle doves is also extraordinary, both labour intensive and a labour of love. Last year, he bred 350, of which 200 over-wintered. Fascinatingly, he uses java doves — the semi-domesticated, small white doves favoured by magicians — to achieve this. The turtle doves lay their eggs as usual, but they’re then hatched and reared by the javas, which involves a massive amount of feeding, watching, watering and incubating. The chicks, known as squabs, are fed by their surrogate mothers. When I visited, some that had just hatched looked very reptilian. Mr Lay carefully watches over them until the young birds can fly and forage for themselves in a huge release pen.

This is a large and impressive operation and, in view of the precarious status of the turtle dove in Britain, I’m mystified as to why the project is not funded by Defra and Natural England. Nonetheless, I’m sure some readers will know I am easily confused and, certainly, when it comes to the fate of turtle doves, I’ve been confused for a very long time.

For more details about the Turtle Dove Trust, visit www.turtledovetrust.org.uk or email info@turtledovetrust.org.uk; to contact Ed Pope at the Watatunga Wildlife Reserve at Tottenhill, near King’s Lynn, Norfolk, email info@watatunga.co.uk; for Trevor Lay of Waveney Wildlife, email waveneywildlife@gmail.com

turtle-dove squabs

Breeders put turtle-dove squabs to java doves, to be raised. Credit: Chris Knights

Disappearing wild turtle doves: where have they gone?

Where have the wild turtle doves gone that once brightened every sunny summer day? We used to see them by our little brook every year, where they dusted themselves by the drinkers and purred — that wonderful song of the dove that can never be forgotten. It was a real part of summer. For me, the sound of a cricket ball on a cricket bat can only be bettered by the sound of the turtle dove purring, the cuckoo calling and the swallow twittering as it collects mud from the puddle in our farmyard. Alas, swallow numbers have plummeted, the cuckoo is an infrequent visitor and the turtle doves have completely vanished. For the sake of calm, my thoughts on the England cricket team will remain unwritten.

For today, however, I’m keen to know where the turtle doves have gone. Industrial farming is certainly one of the causes, as is manic shooting in southern Europe, but so is the chaos caused by our growing populations of uncontrolled predators much loved by semi-detached suburban bunny huggers. I haven’t seen a wild turtle dove on our farm for about 15 years. I recently received a fascinating letter from a woman in Bedfordshire attributing this to our burgeoning population of predators, which she described as the ‘unbalancing of Nature’. It’s such a good phrase that I will use it as a chapter title in my next book.

Turtle Doves’ courtship spotted in Norfolk. Credit: Alamy

Fortunately, where sympathetic farming methods are employed, wild turtle doves can still be found in England. Recently, I went to see a remarkable farmer called Graham Denny in Suffolk, who still has a pristine local accent and continues to see turtle doves returning to nest around his farmyard every year. In 2021, he had four or five pairs; three years ago, it was an incredible nine pairs. Mr Denny loves watching, protecting and ringing birds — mixing wildlife-watching with science — assisted by his amazing wife, Jo, who has striking red hair and makes irresistible sausage rolls.

Mr Denny believes that, as I write this article, ‘his birds’ are in Senegal and, if they manage to dodge all the predators and madmen with guns, they will arrive back on his farm during the last week of April. One thing is for sure, however — whenever they arrive, they will be extremely welcome. He feeds the wild birds on his farm with grain the whole year through, not only in his farmyard, but along his hedgerows, too — this, of course, benefits a wide range of birds and animals. With his interest and skill in ringing, which he does with a group of friends, he also gets a very good idea of where his winter visitors come from, as well as his summer guests.

Needless to say, Mr Denny still also has swallows arriving in the summer — a traditional farmer with traditional birds, which is both reassuring and gives hope for the future. Wonderful.