The turtle dove is the fastest declining bird in the UK. In the 1960s there were an estimated 125,000 pairs in Britain and in 2018 fewer than 3,600. This long-distance African migrant has seen a tragic decline of 98% in just 48 years. In Sussex, considered one of its last strongholds, only 80 territories were estimated in a county-wide survey in 2019, a quarter of which were at Knepp.
Trouble on its long migration route from sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly partly responsible for its steep decline: periodic droughts, changes in land use, loss of roosting sites, increasing desertification and hunting in Africa – and then there’s the stupendous hazard of crossing the firing squads of the Mediterranean. In Malta alone, the slaughter claims 100,000 turtle doves every season. Around 800,000 are killed in Spain.
But while turtle dove numbers are declining across Europe, by far the steepest descent has been in Britain – where we do not shoot them. Here, the decline is almost entirely to do with loss of habitat and food resources.
The thickets and scrub at Knepp provide ideal nesting habitat, with interspersed dead trees providing perches for singing males. Clean water is also an essential resource for turtle doves and most territories at Knepp are found close to water bodies such as Hammer Pond or one of the many water laggs that weave across the Southern Block. Arable weeds emerging in pig-rootled areas may be making a significant contribution to the turtle doves’ food sources at Knepp.
20 singing males were recorded on 1,100 acres of the Southern Block in 2021, compared with three on the whole estate in 1999.