Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Last orders 7th June 2016

The RSPB's Otmoor Reserve near Oxford, has in the last few years acquired a deserved reputation for being a reliable site to encounter the rapidly declining Turtle Dove.  Two or three pairs still manage to take up residence each year despite the well publicised hazards they face on migration from those who seek to hunt and kill them.

Thanks to Chris Packham's efforts the Spring shooting of Turtle Doves in Malta has become a high profile issue and has publicised the fact that the Maltese Government continue to flout EC Law due to the pressure from the Maltese hunting lobby who carry a lot of votes. Shamefully, the Maltese in a referendum voted by the narrowest of majorities to keep hunting Turtle Doves in Spring. One shot Turtle Dove in Spring is one less bird to perpetuate the species but the Maltese do not seem to care as the birds they kill are destined for other countries to breed and not Malta.

The Turtle Doves that pass through Malta are probably not headed for Britain as 'ours' come via North Africa and southern Europe but here they face just as much a hazard from hunting as they do in Malta. It is estimated that between 2-4 million birds are shot each year as they pass through Malta, Cyprus, France, Italy, Spain and Greece. There are no statistics for North Africa and there are no words to express my disgust at this wanton slaughter.

On a couple of summer holidays on Greek Islands some years ago I  stood on headlands literally ankle deep in a technicolour array of spent cartridge cases doubtless used to target anything feathered, including Turtle Doves, that came within range of a gun.  I despair that men feel it is somehow masculine and their right to blast birds from the sky. In this day and age there is absolutely no need to kill any living thing for pleasure but too many still do it with a selfish disregard to the diminishing numbers and the shameful legacy and example they are leaving for future generations.

It is not just the unsustainable levels of hunting exploitation that has done for the Turtle Dove but also the ongoing destruction of its habitat, drought in its winter quarters, climate change, lack of food here in the UK due to changing farming practices and even competition from the widespread and resident Collared Dove. All these factors have amalgamated into armageddon for the Turtle Dove.

Turtle Doves are our only truly migratory dove and are a very pretty bird indeed but they are heading for disaster at a frightening rate. It really is not looking good for Turtle Doves and they are declining so rapidly, 93% since 1970, that an analysis of its parlous state suggests it may well be gone from Britain by 2021.That is five years.Yes FIVE years, so enjoy them while you can. To have these birds at Otmoor is a privilege and hopefully they will persist in making it back against the odds each Spring and prove that the dire forecast for their future in Britain is wrong but somehow I fear the worst, I really do.

However today, a day of warm and humid weather I tried to forget about the dismal prospects for the Turtle Dove and just enjoy them while the opportunity presented itself. A pleasing aspect of their residence at Otmoor is the fact they allow relatively close approach and show little apparent concern about human presence. This can be a two edged sword as it's fine to be confiding when the observers are benign and mean no harm such as on Otmoor but this may be their downfall on migration where they are very much more at risk. 

Turtle Dove purring from one of his favoured song posts
Today, one of the males was purring gently on one of his regular song posts, the telegraph pole just where the approach track meets the bridleway, before flying to a favourite Oak on which to alternately purr and preen in the green shade. 

Seed is also put down nearby in the cattle pens and this no doubt also attracts  them to this area. I watched the male purring, his plumbeous coloured breast swelling with the effort as he did so, his bill mainly closed but occasionally just opening a fraction. His song is typical of doves being a series of four purrs and then a stop before it is repeated again and again. When it finally ceases  it invariably stops after one or two purrs and not the full four.

It is the sound of summer and imparts a sense of drowsy, long forgotten summer days when the summer heat  sapped your energy and in my case you lay in the cool of the long grass under an Elm and let the afternoon pass slowly by in a timeless haze of sun, warmth and buzzing insects. Forty or so years ago Turtle Doves and their purring calls were commonplace and just part of the panoply of summer sounds that were taken for granted. Now you would be extremely lucky to hear one in most of their former haunts. I can recall as a teenager when they used to breed commonly around my childhood home in Surrey and I could almost guarantee finding a nest in the hawthorn scrub on the open land at the back of our house but that was forty years ago.

Turtle Dove habitat at Otmoor RSPB
The nest if that is what you can call it was always the flimsiest of structures being no more than a tiny platform of small twigs, so rudimentary you could see the eggs through the bottom. Like all doves they only laid two white eggs but could have up to three broods in a season.

The Turtle Dove is also inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture, becoming almost legendary, as it was seen as the universal symbol of true love and fidelity by both Chaucer and Shakespeare. It features in one of our best known Christmas carols, The Twelve Days of Christmas and its springtime call is celebrated in  one of the books of The Bible, The Song of Solomon, where it is written 'The voice of the turtle is heard in our land.'  Sadly not for much longer in Britain if the current decline continues, and none of the above historical and cultural references will save it, so see and hear it while you can.