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Turtle dove conservation effort leads RSPB man from Suffolk to Senegal

PUBLISHED: 07:30 30 December 2017

A turtle dove in its summer home of East Anglia. Picture: LES BUNYAN (RSPB IMAGES)

A turtle dove in its summer home of East Anglia. Picture: LES BUNYAN (RSPB IMAGES)

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Turtle doves are the UK’s fastest-declining migrant birds. Their breeding population has declined by a frightening 96% since 1970. The few birds that bred in Britain last summer are now far away in Africa. Ben McFarland, the RSPB’s eastern England regional conservation manager, recently followed them to their wintering grounds - here is his story

Field workers study turtle doves and their wintering habitats in Senegal in a project in which the RSPB's Ben McFarland took part. Picture: BEN McFARLAND Field workers study turtle doves and their wintering habitats in Senegal in a project in which the RSPB's Ben McFarland took part. Picture: BEN McFARLAND

Data underpins good science and at the RSPB we try to base all of our decisions on the very best evidence, so when the chance came up to contribute to the evidence base on turtle dove in Africa I had to grasp the opportunity with both hands.

Now Senegal and Suffolk are a world apart for so many reasons, but what they do have in common is that they are both important areas for this much-loved but fast-disappearing species.

In Suffolk, we are working hard to reverse the precipitous decline suffered by the UK’s shrinking breeding population. Out efforts range from scrub creation on our reserves to working closely with nature-friendly farmers. However, I’ve always been conscious that this is only half the story: what is happening in their wintering grounds in Africa?

The month-long sabbatical was certainly no holiday. Working seven days a week, we were generally up at 5am to avoid as much of the heat of the day as possible, with the afternoons devoted to data entry.

A sight now rare in the UK - a sizeable gathering of turtle doves. These birds were seen in Senegal by the RSPB's Ben McFarland. Picture: BEN McFARLAND A sight now rare in the UK - a sizeable gathering of turtle doves. These birds were seen in Senegal by the RSPB's Ben McFarland. Picture: BEN McFARLAND

The first stage of the surveys was monitoring a known roost site at a location about four hours south-east of Dhaka. An oasis in a region of intense grazing, Beersheeba is a sustainable agriculture project of 100 hectares. Low levels of grazing, coupled with sensitive vegetable and fruit growing, has enabled thick acacia scrub to develop, which turtle doves love.

Permanent water all year round and foraging further afield - low levels of mechanisation means that there is still lots of spilt seed around - makes this an ideal spot. During the survey we recorded an incredible 33,500 turtle doves leaving the site to feed. Now, it’s not often I get emotional in my work but the sight of so many birds flying over my head - personally in my section I counted around 9,000 - brought a lump to my throat and, I’ll admit it, perhaps even a little tear in my eye.

This was not only as a result of the visual experience, which was incredible. It was also because it represented hope - hope that this approach, which clearly benefits local people as well as birds, could be replicated elsewhere. Local people have to be part of the solution.

Most of my trip was spent travelling the country surveying potential areas, recording not only the birds we found but also vegetation and the level of human impact.

Turtle dove wintering habitat in Senegal. Pictufre: BEN McFARLAND Turtle dove wintering habitat in Senegal. Pictufre: BEN McFARLAND

Sadly, we never saw anything like the numbers of turtle dove we hoped to see. Along the Mauritanian and Malian borders, the fringes of the Sahara, the rains had failed and the grass had therefore died before it could develop seed, depriving the turtle doves of a food source. Water had largely dried up and the lack of foraging increased the grazing pressure on the scrub even more.

We also saw extensive deforestation. Whilst the combination of climate change and population pressure created a depressing picture, the Beersheeba example filled me with genuine optimism and a satisfaction that the data I collected will help us in the future to develop projects that could save our turtle doves as well as other migrant birds.

Here at home in the UK the turtle dove population is currently halving every six years. They are considered to be vulnerable to global extinction and are critically endangered in terms of their risk of extinction as a breeding bird in the UK.

As well as the environmental pressures they face in Africa and the risk from hunters’ guns on their migration routes through Europe, available evidence also points strongly towards agricultural intensification greatly reducing the diversity, abundance, seasonal availability and accessibility of suitable seed food.

Ben McFarland back home in Suffolk. Picture: JOHN GRANT Ben McFarland back home in Suffolk. Picture: JOHN GRANT

In response to the shocking decline in population, the RSPB has set-up 29 Turtle Dove Friendly Zones. We are actively working and providing advice to farmers in 14 of them already and are looking to get funding to expand into all the zones in the near future.

Through our work we hope to support farmers and land managers to deliver the turtle dove’s habitat requirements and provide enough nesting and feeding habitat to reverse the species’ decline.

More information about the turtle dove and a wide-ranging partnership project dedicated to the species’ conservation can be found at www.operationturtledove.org/

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