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Farmers across two counties set to take part in pioneering conservation work to save endangered bird

PUBLISHED: 05:06 21 November 2020

A pair of turtle doves  Picture: RICHARD BENNETT

A pair of turtle doves Picture: RICHARD BENNETT

Richard Bennett

Farmers are set to create turtle dove feed plots across Norfolk and Suffolk in a bid to reverse dramatic declines in one of the UK’s most celebrated farmland birds.

The RSPB is trying to reverse a decline in turtle dove numbers  Picture: BEN ANDREWThe RSPB is trying to reverse a decline in turtle dove numbers Picture: BEN ANDREW

The turtle dove is now the UK’s most threatened farmland bird, and has suffered a 98% decline in numbers since the 1970s. It is now at risk of global extinction.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has launched a £320k scheme to fund an innovative conservation project across the two counties.

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RSPB senior project manager Jake Zarins said the charity would be trialling a new way of distributing funding to farmers to save the “beautiful and secretive” bird.

“The last population estimate in 2016 suggested there were just 3600 breeding pairs in the UK, with East Anglia being one of the species’ few remaining strongholds,” he explained.

The RSPB's turtle doves test and trials project zones  Picture: RSPBThe RSPB's turtle doves test and trials project zones Picture: RSPB

“Research shows the main reason for this rapid decline is the reduced availability of their preferred food – the seeds of arable plants such as fumitory, scarlet pimpernel, chickweed and clover - due to changes in agricultural practices.

“With less to eat turtle doves take longer to get into breeding condition when they arrive in spring from their African wintering grounds. As a result they are only managing to raise one brood of chicks per year rather than the two or three that was the norm in the 1960s.

“This depleted population has then been more vulnerable to further decline from other pressures such as unsustainable hunting along the doves’ European migration routes.”

But conservationist are hoping that with significant reductions in hunting in France and Spain over the last two years, they can generate more habitat across four zones in Norfolk and Suffolk for the migratory bird, which overwinters in sub-Saharan west Africa.

RSPB senior project manager Jake Zarins  Picture:  JAKE ZARINSRSPB senior project manager Jake Zarins Picture: JAKE ZARINS

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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is carrying out a series of tests and trials to work out what will replace the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies for farmers.

As a result, the RSPB is trying out a new way of funding habitat creation for farmland species through “reverse auctions” under the UK government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs).

These have already proved successful in funding a variety of land management practices, especially in relation to nitrate capture in water catchments — and DEFRA is keen to see if they can deliver more complex environmental results, explained Mr Zarins.

Turtle Dove project is trying out a new approach to farmer payments  Picture: JONNY RANKINTurtle Dove project is trying out a new approach to farmer payments Picture: JONNY RANKIN

“In this instance the project will use reverse auctions to allocate £320,000 to farmers to provide turtle dove feeding plots and other habitat improvements,” he said.

The first auction will take place in early 2021. Landowners interested in the scheme will be supported by RSPB advisers to identify suitable turtle dove nesting habitat and the best locations for feeding plots on their land.

This information is then submitted online, along with the price required to deliver this work. Bids will be scored on price but also on the quality and proximity of nesting habitat and water to the proposed food plots.

The project is targeting zones around Hadleigh and Stonham Aspal in Suffolk, as well as the Wensum Valley and North West Norfolk. In total the project hopes to engage more than 100 landowners in providing vital support to the region’s remaining turtle doves while also providing feedback to DEFRA on the potential role of reverse auctions for future ELM schemes.

A pair of turtle doves perched on agricultural machinery  PIcture: ANDY HAYA pair of turtle doves perched on agricultural machinery PIcture: ANDY HAY

“This project is a great opportunity for farmers and land managers to both boost efforts to save an important part of the UK’s agricultural heritage, and directly influence how future agri-environment schemes might be delivered,” said Mr Zarins.

“We are really keen to engage as many people as possible in raising awareness of the plight of the turtle dove and working in partnership with those who know best how to deliver the practical assistance these amazing birds need. We would love to hear from any landowners who are in our target zones and are interested in participating in this exciting project.”

For more information on the project visit the project webpage https://www.entrade.co.uk/rspb or contact Jake Zarins on jake.zarins@rspb.org.uk or 07739 460005. For information on how to help turtle dove populations, visit the Operation Turtle Dove website https://www.operationturtledove.org/


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