The Turtle Dove Project
- 15 December 2023
The National Trust has acquired a further 70 acres of land adjoining Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, in efforts to protect more of the precious fenland habitat and to help more rare animals and birds including turtle doves.
The turtle dove used to be a frequent visitor to the UK following its annual migratory path from breeding grounds in mid-summer through western Europe to wintering grounds in west Africa. But, since the 1970s, numbers have been in sharp decline in this country and this ‘dainty dove’ is now under threat from global extinction due to habitat loss, food shortages and unsustainable levels of hunting.
The UK had around 2,100 breeding pairs of turtle dove according to a survey in 2021 and the best places to spot them are East Anglia and south-east England, where hundreds of farmers, landowners and conservation organisations are working with ‘Operation Turtle Dove’ to restore turtle dove habitat on farmlands and reverse their decline.
Wicken Fen, an internationally significant National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest, was the first nature reserve to be acquired by the National Trust, with two acres bought in 1899. The reserve has since expanded to over 2,000 acres (809 hectares), supporting over 9,300 species, and this recent addition was made possible by legacies and donations from the public to support the Wicken Fen Vision and the purchase of land for nature.
Some of the newly acquired landscape will be used to support turtle doves and other farmland birds, thanks to a £58,000 grant from Natural England’s Species Recovery Programme and generous donations towards hedgerow tree planting.
As the BBC Wild Isles series revealed earlier this year, over 40 per cent of the UK’s native species are in decline, and the UK is in the bottom 10 per cent of countries globally for protecting nature. Many of the spectacular landscapes and their wildlife seen on Wild Isles are, in fact, fragile and fragmented.
Alan Kell, Countryside Manager for the National Trust’s Wicken Fen, said:
“As outlined in the State of Nature report released in September this year, the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, with a significant part of this a result of habitat loss. This acquisition and the support of Natural England's Species Recovery Programme will provide the opportunity to restore scarce habitats such as lowland meadow, hedgerows, arable field margins and ponds, and expand Wicken Fen to provide a green corridor for the benefit of both nature; including many nationally threatened species such as the turtle dove, but also for people, by providing additional access to green spaces.
“On one of the recently acquired parcels of land on the outskirts of the village of Reach, we are set to establish a mix of habitats, including a wild bird cover crop, lowland meadow and hedgerows to encourage turtle doves and other farmland birds and invertebrates to the area come spring. The team will then survey the biodiversity of the site, including monitoring for turtle doves during the breeding season with results feeding into ‘Operation Turtle Dove,’ a project run by the RSPB, Natural England and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, that advises on turtle dove habitat creation.”
Alan continued: “Turtle doves feed mostly on arable and mixed farmland, where its staple food of wildflower seeds and farmed crop grains are found on the ground. The species nests and roosts near to its feeding grounds in thorny scrub, tall wide hedgerows and dense scrubby woodland edges.”
Mike Shurmer, Head of Species for RSPB England said:
“The ambition of the communities we work with through Operation Turtle Dove 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.”
Over the past few years, Wicken Fen has worked with villagers from Reach on a number of community-led projects including woodland planting, which has now developed into ideal nesting habitat for turtle doves. Plans are underway to establish ponds in the area and now they hope to work together on turtle dove monitoring.
Local resident, Nick Acklam, commented: “Over the last ten years or so the community of Reach had benefitted from the National Trust’s acquisition of the 24 acres. Half the land had been leased to the village and had enabled four projects that were close to the heart of the community, namely creating an equestrian manège, developing an award-winning cricket pitch and planting a community orchard and native woodland. Villagers look forward to participating in future projects led by the Trust to add to the biodiversity of the area including the creation of ponds.”
The latest acquisition is part of the Wicken Fen Vision, launched in 1999, it is an ambitious 100-year plan to expand and create a diverse landscape for nature, carbon and people.
Covering 53km2, the Vision area stretches from Wicken Fen to Anglesey Abbey (which is approximately 5 miles / 8km away) and the edge of Cambridge. The aim of the vision is to protect a historic landscape of high environmental value, whilst providing a space to breathe, think and explore in the modern world.
Emma Ormond-Bones, General Manager at Wicken Fen, said: “By working in partnership with landowners and tenants, our aim is to enhance biodiversity, secure carbon through peat and habitat restoration, and provide accessible greenspace for people.
“People will be able to enjoy access and recreation opportunities across the Vision area, with opportunities to get involved through volunteering, education, events and interpretation in the landscape.”
The National Trust, together with the RSPB and WWF UK, is asking everyone to act now to help Save Our Wild Isles. “The truth is, every one of us, no matter who we are or where we live, can and must play a part in restoring nature,” says Sir David Attenborough.
Communities across the UK are encouraged to show their love of nature by committing to ‘go wild once a week’. Find out how you can play your part in saving nature by visiting saveourwildisles.org.uk. Search 'National Trust donation' or 'gifts in wills' to find out how you can leave a legacy to protect the wildlife and places you love.