Type to search

Birds Christmas

Turtle Doves of the Twelve days of Christmas Facing Extinction

  • Turtle doves bird ‘most likely’ to go extinct in Britain in the next few decades
  • Fewer than 5,000 turtle doves left in UK compared to 250,000 in the 1960s
  • Turtle dove population increasing at Knepp Castle Estate, in due to extensive rewilding project as detailed in Isabella Tree’s Wilding
  • Knepp ‘has more turtle doves on 3,500 hectares than National Trust does on 250,000 hectares’

Millions of this people this Christmas will sing about the ‘two turtle doves my true love gave to me’ in the carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ – yet most Britons have never heard a real-life turtle dove, and potentially never will.

According to the RSPB , turtle doves are the species of bird most likely to go extinct from our shores in the next couple of decades. In the 1960s there were 250,000 turtles doves in Britain; in 2018 there are fewer than 5,000.

There are two main reasons for their catastrophic decline. Firstly, the loss of the thorny scrub that is their habitat, due to the agricultural transformation of the British countryside since World War Two; and secondly, widespread intolerance for the so-called ‘arable weeds’- i.e. native wildflowers – which are the main source of food for the birds.

But West Sussex’s Knepp Castle Estate the subject of Isabella Tree’s best-selling book Wilding, is bucking the trend. Formerly a working farm, Isabella and her husband Charlie Burrell have turned the estate into the largest rewilding project in lowland Britain, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife.

There were no turtle doves to be found at Knepp at all from 1940s until the year 2000, during the period when it was under intensive farming. In the summer of 2018, 18 singing male turtle doves were recorded on site, which indicates that there may have been as many as 30 turtles doves or more (turtle doves are shy and incredibly difficult to spot, so the distinct ‘turr-turr-ing’ call of the males is the best way of identifying numbers).

Knepp is quite likely to be the only place in Britain where numbers of turtle doves are actually rising. According to Matthew Oates, Nature Specialist at the National Trust, Knepp probably has more turtle doves on its 3,500 acres than the National Trust does on 250,000 hectares. The presence of fledglings at Knepp also suggests that the turtle doves are beginning to breed there.

Isabella Tree, author of Wilding and co-owner of Knepp Castle Estate :“The reason turtle doves have been drawn to Knepp is because our rewilding project is providing them with the thorny scrub they like to nest in away from predators, as well as plenty of clean water ponds and an abundance of their food source of native seed-bearing wildflowers.

“I think this is a clear sign that there is hope for the turtle dove in the UK. If Knepp  – 44 miles from central London, under the Gatwick stacking system, on land that was virtually a biological desert before the year 2000 – can bring back turtle doves, then anywhere can.

“If only we can roll out the concept of rewilding to allow ourselves to embrace a wilder landscape, we could bring turtle doves back from the brink, and at Christmas sing of a bird that is a living part of our culture once again, rather than a lost icon of the past.”

An extract from Isabella Tree’s Wilding:

For most people our age, born in the 1960s, who have grown up in the English countryside, turtle doves are the sound of summer. Their companionable crooning is lodged forever, somewhere deep in my subconscious. But this nostalgia, I realize, is lost to generations younger than ours. In the 1960s there were an estimated 250,000 turtle doves in Britain. Today there are fewer than 5,000.

At the present rate of decline, by 2050 there could be fewer than 50 pairs, and from there it would be a hair’s breadth to extinction as a breeding species in Britain. Now, at Christmas, when we sing of the gifts my true love gave to me, few carollers have ever heard a turtle dove, let alone seen one. The significance of its name, derived from the lovely Latin turtur (nothing to do with the reptile; all to do with its seductive purring), is lost to us. The symbolism of ‘turtles’, their pair-bonding an allegory of marital tenderness and devotion, their mournful turr-turr-ing the song of love lost, the stuff of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Spenser, is vanishing into the kingdom of phoenixes and unicorns.

Wilding (Picador, £20) by Isabella Tree is available now from all good bookstores.