Giving the gift of hope: How hundreds of farmers and volunteers across South East and Eastern England are helping to save rare Turtle Doves

As 2023 comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the fantastic efforts that have been made this year to support Turtle Dove conservation.

Hundreds of UK farmers, landowners and volunteers are helping to give the gift of hope for Turtle Doves, working with Operation Turtle Dove to provide better nesting and feeding habitat for the rare birds across southern and eastern England. Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership, between the RSPB, Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Fair to Nature.

This year, we are celebrating a record year of effort since the project began in 2012, with over 260 farm holdings – covering over 68,500 hectares – and a further 107 land managers helping to create the perfect conditions for these iconic birds alongside dedicated volunteers. This has led to the creation of 620 foraging and supplementary feeding sites for Turtle Doves in 2023 alone, a figure that is almost double the number provided in 2022.

Turtle Dove foraging in farmland

Turtle Doves feed on seeds on the ground. We’re working to provide them with suitable feeding habitat. © Nicole Khan (

A science-led conservation project aimed at improving the future of the UK’s Turtle Doves, we are working to turn around the fortunes of this much-loved migratory dove that spends the winter in West Africa before migrating back to our shores for spring and summer to breed.

We have been working to help create Turtle Dove feeding areas, maintain dense scrub and hedgerows as nesting sites, provide ponds for drinking and washing, and supply seed food – all of which have been shown to benefit Turtle Doves in focused trials. Now these conservation tools – as a tested formula for success – are being carefully rolled out by expert staff to improve the fortunes of these summer visitors right across the southern and eastern of England.

Work to create the perfect nesting and feeding conditions is a collaborative effort, with our team of dedicated Turtle Dove advisors supporting farmers and landowners, volunteers and communities in their efforts to help Turtle Doves in stronghold areas.

Mike Shurmer, Head of Species for RSPB England said: “The ambition of the communities and landowners we work with to help save these iconic birds is nothing short of amazing, and if we continue with this momentum, it won’t be long before we can expect to see Turtle Dove numbers starting to rise across the UK.”

Engaging with farmers and local communities has been vital, as changes to the farmed landscape have made it increasingly difficult for farmland birds, including Turtle Doves, to find food and suitable nesting habitat. These agricultural changes have meant that an estimated 2,100 breeding territories remain in the UK according to the 2021 National Turtle Dove survey.

Meanwhile, recently released data shows that overall farmland bird numbers have fallen by over 60% across the UK since the 1970s. Previous targeted conservation work, in partnership with farmers and landowners, has however shown that we can reverse these declines, as demonstrated by other successful projects to bring back Cirl Bunting and Stone-curlew from the brink of extinction in the UK.

Rebecca Pringle, Senior Ornithology Specialist at Natural England said: “The habitat creation we are delivering with farmers and land managers through Operation Turtle Dove is key to improving the fortunes of these incredible birds, as numbers of potential breeding birds arriving here are likely to increase over the next few years. We are now in the third consecutive year of a Turtle Dove hunting ban along the Western European Flyway and – thanks to these two conservation approaches working hand in hand – it’s amazing to hear about birds returning to breed in parts of southern and eastern England after the hard work and dedication of so many land managers and communities.”

Alongside conservation efforts in the UK, a hunting moratorium across south-west Europe has meant that one million fewer Turtle Doves have been shot during this year’s migration. This crucial lifeline, alongside habitat restoration and supplementary feeding in the UK, has been ensuring the right conditions for Turtle Dove recovery.

Turtle Dove perched in a tree with blossom

Operation Turtle Dove aims to boost numbers through the improvement of breeding habitat and food availability here in the UK, harnessing the power of hundreds of farmers, landowners and volunteers through science-led conservation. © Ben Andrew (

Creating farmland habitat features – from hedgerows to ponds and flower-rich planting– even in gardens and local greenspaces can benefit Turtle Doves on their return to the UK. Having travelled 2,500 miles on migration from sub-Saharan Africa across France, Spain and Portugal, the birds can refuel quickly and start breeding here in the UK thanks to this work, with some pairs raising multiple broods over the summer. A whole host of other rare UK wildlife in these areas, such as Grey Partridge, Nightingale or Yellowhammer, can benefit from Turtle Dove friendly habitat too.

Mike continued: “We now are at the crucial midway point between National Turtle Dove Surveys, with the next one planned for 2026. We are hopeful that these efforts, alongside effective conservation at scale across the whole of the Turtle Dove migration flyway, will have helped us to turn a corner for this bird.

Ten years ago, the prospects for Turtle Doves looked bleak: plummeting populations and little sign of being able to fix either their breeding habitats or very high, and clearly unsustainable levels of hunting. But, through collaboration, focus, and persistence we have developed and implemented the evidence base, changing this completely. We are hopeful that we will see the results of this dedication in 2026’s national survey results.”

Our immense thanks go out to everyone involved in supporting this work. Together we’re helping to ensure Turtle Doves have the perfect conditions waiting for them when they arrive from Africa next spring.