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Western European population of Turtle Doves up 25% following temporary hunting ban

Western European population of Turtle Doves up 25% following temporary hunting ban
  • Conservationists are celebrating a significant increase in Turtle Dove numbers in western Europe following just two years of a hunting moratorium, offering hope for the UK population in the future.
  • The news of the 25% increase in Turtle Doves across western Europe, an additional 400,000 breeding pairs, from 2021 to 2023, comes as France, Spain and Portugal confirm a fourth year pause in hunting.
  • In the UK, farmers, landowners, communities and volunteers are helping secure vital habitat for these migratory birds, here on the northern edge of their breeding range, through the Operation Turtle Dove project. The RSPB and our project partners anticipate that these efforts, coupled with the population boost across the western continent, will mean that Turtle Dove numbers can increase in the UK again once more.

Conservationists across western Europe are celebrating after a new report showed a rapid 25% increase in their Turtle Dove breeding population after just two years of a moratorium on Turtle Dove hunting.

The report, prepared for the European Commission, comes from the international team of scientists advising governments on how to manage their populations of Turtle Doves sustainably. The temporary hunting ban, in place across France, Spain and Portugal since 2021, resulted from evidence-based advice from the same team.

Hunting of Turtle Doves has taken place for many years in France, Spain and Portugal, and prior to 2018, around one million Turtle Doves were being hunted each autumn across these three countries alone. These numbers were clearly unsustainable for the population, leading to the development of a better management system, starting with the recent temporary hunting ban. The rapid initial success of this ban revealed in the report has provided impetus for all three countries involved to introduce a fourth consecutive year of no Turtle Dove hunting in 2024. 

As part of a long-term sustainable management process, this hunting moratorium was called for by an international conservation action plan for Turtle Doves. The RSPB led the production of this plan, launched in 2018, bringing together experts from across the Turtle Dove’s range, working collaboratively across borders to identify the actions needed to secure the future of the Turtle Dove, including as a breeding bird in the UK.

The lead author of the report to the European Commission, Dr Carles Carboneras, of the Spanish Institute for Game and Wildlife Research (IREC) said “The rapid start to the recovery of the Western European breeding population of Turtle Doves since 2021 shows us the value of a well-researched and well-implemented conservation action plan. The collaborative international plan showed us what actions were required, on what scale and where. With our scientific advice, governments, land managers and hunters have implemented the plan’s recommendations, and we are just starting to see the resulting success.” 

The same plan makes it clear that the other priority conservation action for Turtle Doves is to ensure that they have good breeding season habitats available. This applies particularly to countries like the UK where changes to the way we farmed our land in the 20th century deprived Turtle Doves of much of their seed food. But by working hand in hand with farmers now, these key habitats can be restored.

Rick Bayne, Senior Project Manager for Operation Turtle Dove said, “The recent increase in Turtle Dove numbers across western Europe as a whole is really exciting news, making our conservation efforts here in the UK for these birds all the more worthwhile.

As this news, and the International Species Action Plan1 clearly demonstrates, the combination of ending unsustainable levels of hunting, together with delivering more suitable habitat here on their breeding grounds, is key to numbers of these special birds increasing again. We know both actions must happen together and this excellent news is compelling evidence that our conservation strategy for Turtle Doves is working “

Operation Turtle Dove, a partnership between the RSPB, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Fair to Nature, is dedicated to helping the UK’s breeding population of Turtle Doves to recover.

As Rick continues: “We are going to have a fourth year of no hunting in France, Spain and Portugal; the same countries through which all Turtle Doves breeding in Western Europe – included all that breed in the UK – migrate.  This means that now is the time to really double-down on our efforts and make sure we provide even more nesting and feeding habitat in the UK so that more and more of us can enjoy the summer purring call of this wonderful bird.”

The recent and rapid recovery across the whole of western Europe – this whole population now numbers nearly 2 million breeding territories – provides hope for hundreds of farmers and landowners in the UK who are providing vital habitats for Turtle Dove on their land; flowering plots and patches to provide seed food and dense thorny scrub to provide safe nesting sites.  It is predicted that more Turtle Doves will be reaching the UK, to take advantage of these habitats, and in turn raise more chicks of their own, further boosting numbers. The UK sits at the northern edge of the western European population and the ‘recovery wave’ is expected to take slightly longer to reach this northern edge, but reach us it will.

Creating and protecting farmland habitat features, from seed-rich flowering areas and ponds to patches of thorny scrub, and tall wide hedgerows – even in gardens and local greenspaces – can benefit Turtle Doves on their return to the UK ensuring these spaces are Turtle Dove ready. Having travelled 3,000 miles on migration from sub-Saharan Africa across France, Spain and Portugal, the birds can refuel quickly and start breeding here in the UK thanks to this work, with pairs raising multiple broods over the summer when conditions are good for them. Other birds in these areas, such as Grey Partridge, Nightingale and Yellowhammer, and a whole host of other wildlife can benefit from Turtle Dove friendly habitat too.  

As Dr Guy Anderson, Migratory Birds Programme Manager from the RSPB said “The start of a Turtle Dove recovery at continental scale is certainly something to be celebrated. The continued fantastic work of our nature-friendly farmers, land managers and communities will be crucial in order to ensure the right habitat is available to these special birds when they migrate here to breed. But with all this in place, we can look forward to watching the UK breeding population recovering too. Now, more than ever, our farmers need the guarantee of support from the Governments of the UK through agri-environment schemes to continue working alongside nature in this way, empowering farmers to deliver not only for wildlife, but for climate and long-term food security too”.


Main image: Turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, adult perched in hawthorn bush, Bedfordshire, May, Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)