The Turtle Doves of Hazelwood Marshes

Guest blog by Matt Adam Williams, wildlife photographer and naturalist

I’m writing this aboard a train that is whisking me across the open fields of East Anglia. In the distance to the West, slate grey clouds hold the promise of rain. We’re sailing at pace through oceans of intensive crops packed up to the edges of fields, like sardines in a tin. This transformation of our countryside over just a couple of generations has ensured we’ve had food on our plates, but it has also altered the fortunes of British wildlife.

I’m travelling back inland from the coast where I visited a small Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve called Hazlewood Marshes – a mixture of dense scrub, scattered trees and reedbed tucked into the edge of the Alde estuary. As I reacquainted myself with these old haunts (I used to live nearby), I encountered the song of a bird I haven’t heard for at least four years and the true significance of which I’ve only recently learned from friends who work for the RSPB.

The song of the turtle dove is a hypnotic purr that words can’t capture (have a listen, once a common signal that Summer had arrived. And I found a further two of them singing on the small reserve as I walked around. They were backed by a singing chorus of reed and sedge warblers, whitethroats, blackcaps and a nightingale. Hazlewood Marshes is also home to the Hosking birdwatching hide, so named after Eric Hosking, the wildlife photographer who lived and worked on the Suffolk coast. During the first few decades of Hosking’s life and career (he was born in 1909) turtle doves would have been a common sight across the British countryside.

These days, hearing three turtle doves in such a small area is truly remarkable. This bird is perhaps the standard-bearer of the catastrophic decline of many of our best loved farmland birds, such as grey partridges, yellow wagtails and skylarks. And their decline tells us that there’s something seriously wrong with our relationship with the countryside. But the turtle dove stands head and shoulders above the rest, having suffered the largest decline of any single UK bird species of recent times – their numbers have declined by 93% since the 1970s.

The reasons for this are far from simple. Demand for food and the incentives to produce it have turned vast swathes of the UK countryside into an inhospitable sea of crops. This makes it hard for the doves to feed themselves and their chicks Disease, shooting on migration, and problems on their wintering grounds could all be playing a role. Perhaps these dim prospects are what lend a slightly mournful edge to their otherwise evocative and sunny purr.

The turtle dove going extinct in the UK is not yet inevitable, but it is increasingly likely. It would be a deeply saddening loss to our countryside to allow the turtle dove’s purr to fall silent across the land.

Pockets of hope like Hazelwood Marshes need to be cherished, but we also need to pave the way for the turtle dove to return across the UK. We’ll achieve this by fulfilling our moral duty to ensure that young people future generations can enjoy a countryside as flourishing as the one our parents and grandparents grew up in. Saving farmland birds like the turtle dove is a vital part of that duty.