Fears for Turtle Doves as numbers fall dramatically

This press release from the RSPB originally appeared in Gozo News (Gozo and Malta) http://gozonews.com/40210/fears-for-turtle-doves-as-numbers-fall-dramatically-rspb/

In the UK, Conservationists fear 2013 could be the lowest year ever for turtle dove numbers – England’s most threatened farmland bird, with last summer’s extremely wet weather in the UK as, a possible cause.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK, said that official figures show that turtle doves – an icon of the English countryside and a fixture in literature and folklore for centuries – have declined by 84 per cent since 1995. But reports from recent weeks show that this summer’s population is likely to be lower than ever.

In May 2012 the RSPB launched ‘Operation Turtle Dove – saving a bird on the brink, calling it an “urgent mission to save one of the UK’s most threatened birds from extinction.”

Then in May this year the RSPB reported that nationally, the turtle doves have declined by 93 per cent since 1970. “At this current rate of change, if we don’t help this species, scientists calculate there will be fewer than 1000 pairs by 2020, and complete UK extinction as a breeding species will be a real possibility.”

Scientists are currently investigating the causes of the turtle dove’s catastrophic population crash in a fight against the clock to develop conservation measures before they disappear from our shores entirely.

The birds face a number of threats including changes in farming practices both in the UK and in Africa where they spend the winter, and are also regularly shot by hunters in Europe and North Africa.

BirdTrack, an online project using data from thousands of volunteer wildlife recorders, has revealed that just 2 per cent of recorders’ lists featured turtle dove sightings in May compared with 3.5 per cent last year.

However there is some hope on the horizon as scientists currently conducting research in East Anglia have seen positive breeding successes this year with more chicks surviving and leaving the nest than last year.

Dr Jenny Dunn, RSPB conservation scientist, said, “Last summer in the UK was the wettest in living memory, and it is no surprise that this has had an impact on turtle doves.

“This is just the latest misfortune for a species which has become more and more threatened in the past decade’

“The cold and damp summer of 2012 is likely to have have hampered the birds’ efforts to feed their chicks as well as keeping them warm and as a result many will have died before they were able to take their first flight.

“The weather has been much better for the nesting birds so far this summer and we are hoping for a better breeding season than last year.

‘This is just the latest misfortune for a species which has become more and more threatened in the past decade. We are extremely worried that if we cannot work out how to save them the familiar purr of this beautiful bird will never again be heard in our countryside.”

The RSPB, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Conservation Grade launched Operation Turtle Dove to research the causes of the decline and put in place emergency measures to help them.

This includes helping farmers to sow seed-rich plots on turtle dove breeding grounds in the UK and studying the birds’ migration routes to sub-Saharan Africa in order to target conservation work on their wintering grounds.

In Malta, the Ornis Committee earlier this year recommened that the spring hunting season should open for three weeks between the 10th and 30th of April 2013, the season included the hunting of turtle doves.

The Government then published a Legal Notice declaring the opening of a Spring Hunting Season in 2013 for Turtle Dove and Quail between the 10th April 2013 and 30th April 2013, both dates included.

The national hunting bag limit for the spring season was established at 11,000 turtle doves and 5,000 Quail.

Many protests were made through the season by NGOs and other entities, with allegations of illegal hunting among other things.

In May this year, Italian MEP Andrea Zanoni said in the European Parliament, “that Malta has authorised Spring hunting on the basis of a derogation but the bag limit was reached in the first hours, not the first days of the season.”

Mr Zanoni said “this European Member State is taking Europe for a ride. Political parties promised everything during their campaigns for the recent general election including hunting. However, hunters in Malta shoot at everything that moves.”

The MEP’s statement was refuted by both the Federation for Hunting and Conservation Malta (FKNK) and St. Hubert Hunters Malta (KSU).

A Coalition in favour of the abolition of spring hunting has now been established. The Coalition is made up of eleven organisations: Alternattiva Demokratika, Birdlife Malta, Coalition for Animal Rights, Din l-Art Helwa, Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, Friends of the Earth Malta, Gaia Foundation, Moviment Graffiti, Greenhouse Malta, Nature Trust (Malta) and the Ramblers Association of Malta.