Over the last two weeks, my early morning walks through the forest have been accompanied by the gentle purring call of a turtle dove. This, our only migrant member of the pigeon family, is a summer visitor to Norfolk, arriving in late April or early May. By now, many pairs will have laid their first clutches of eggs and may just, if conditions are favourable, produce another before departure to their African wintering quarters. For me, the soft hypnotic purr is a reassuring part of summer, heard in my youth from southern counties on warm summer evenings and now a feature of my morning walks. Yet, there is a sorrowful undertone to the call itself, something that has resonance with many who hear it. Shakespeare famously used the image of a calling turtle dove in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, when Paulina proclaims “I, an old turtle, will wing me to some whither’d bough, and there my mate, that’s never to be found again, lament till I am lost.”
The turtle dove has a breeding range that is largely restricted, within Britain, to the southeast of England. This reflects an association with arable land, the birds favouring areas with suitable thick hedgerows for nesting and abundant weed and (latterly) cereal seeds for food. Historically, it was believed that the arable weed fumitory was the most important food item but recent work by the Game Conservancy, carried out here in East Anglia, has shown that oilseed rape and cereal now dominate. Perhaps the increasing use of herbicides to control arable weeds has forced the birds to exploit new feeding opportunities. Other evidence also points towards the birds finding it more difficult to survive within a changed arable landscape. Individuals will travel up to 10km from their breeding territories in order to find good feeding opportunities and this, coupled with a decline in nest site availability, may be behind an 80% decline in numbers between 1967 and 1999.
It is not just within Britain that the turtle dove population has been under pressure. The wintering areas in Sahelian Africa have increasingly suffered from drought and the birds themselves are heavily persecuted during migration by hunters. Within France, where such hunting is illegal under European legislation, nearly 200,000 were shot in Autumn 1998, while a further 25,000 were shot on their return northwards the following spring. For a species that is now having difficulty in rearing more than one brood in a season, such levels of persecution cannot be sustained. Against such a background, Shakespeare’s verse takes on a different meaning. The day may soon come when we lament the passing of the turtle dove’s song from our summer overture.