Saving Yorkshire’s Turtle Doves

It’s the finest view in England, according to the author James Herriot. Sutton Bank is a breathtakingly dramatic escarpment in the North York Moors National Park, towering over the Vales of York and Mowbray.

View from Sutton Bank

Today, though, I’m not really here for the scenery. As I head for the visitor centre, binoculars and camera at the ready, I’m hoping to see a visitor who’s travelled seven thousand miles from Mali in West Africa: turtle doves have been spotted coming down to the bird feeders here.
Our grandparents might have been puzzled by all the fuss: 50 years ago, these dainty doves – only slightly bigger than a blackbird – were pretty common. In recent decades, they’ve suffered a catastrophic decline. The RSPB reckons there are now just 14,000 breeding territories in the UK – most of them in the south and east of England.
In Yorkshire, they’re clinging on by a thread. There may now be fewer than a hundred birds nesting in the whole region. If you’re going to see them at all, the North York Moors is the place to do it.

Turtle doves. Takashi_Yanagisawa – Pixabay

So, what’s behind the alarming fall in numbers? Some of the answers may lie in that perilous migration from Africa. They fly to the UK in late April and May and make the return journey between July and September, running the gauntlet of hunters’ guns in parts of southern Europe.
Much of the problem, though, lies here in the UK. Changes to land management practices mean our countryside is now much less hospitable to turtle doves. There are fewer places where they can find the tiny native seeds they eat, fewer ponds to provide drinking water, fewer scrubby hedges or young conifer plantations for them to nest in.
Now a project has been launched to try to save North Yorkshire’s turtle doves. It’s got Heritage Lottery funding and an impressive array of organisations involved – the North York Moors National Park, the Forestry Commission, the Howardian Hills AONB, the RSPB, Scarborough Borough Council, and North and East Yorkshire Ecological Data Centre.
The aim is to spread the word as widely as possible about these beautiful, threatened birds. In particular, farmers are being urged to plant the native seeds on which they thrive – autumn-sown pollen and nectar mix, flower-rich arable field margins or wildflower grasslands.
Back to my quest at Sutton Bank. No sign of any turtle doves, but I am treated to marvellous views of another species that’s suffered a dramatic decline due to loss of habitat and food – the yellowhammer. Where I live in the Pennines, it feels like you have more chance of spotting a capercaillie…


There’s another brief moment of excitement when a dove flutters into a nearby tree. But is turtle or collared? Sadly, it soon transpires to be the wrong type of dove.
After a couple of hours, I decide to leave Sutton Bank and head 35 miles east to another favourite turtle dove haunt – Wykeham Forest between Pickering and Scarborough.
After the hustle and bustle of Sutton Bank, this place is incredibly quiet – arable farmland fringed with forest, and not a soul about. It feels like going back to a bygone era when turtle doves were plentiful.
I imagine I can hear the turtle doves’ soft, purring song, but it’s only the murmuring of the wind. I scan the fields and trees through binoculars, following every movement. Lapwings, pheasants, mistle thrushes, bullfinches, hundreds of woodpigeons… but no turtle doves.
After four hours – tired, hungry and a bit dejected – I finally admit defeat. As I trudge back to my car, I meet a dog-walker, who tells me a pair of turtle doves regularly visit his garden.
On the two-hour drive home, I console myself – as I do when I think about my once all-conquering football team these days – with the platitude that failures make success, when it finally comes, all the sweeter. I remember that a few months ago I was celebrating the haphazard nature of wildlife-spotting after blundering upon a white stoat on Pen-y-ghent. This is the reverse side of the coin.
So, I’ll come back soon and have another go, before the turtle doves embark on their epic return trip to Africa.
And, who knows? If the North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project proves a success, maybe in future there’ll be more of these wonderful birds spending their summers in this beautiful area.

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Wildlife enthusiast, walker and journalist. Lives in Yorkshire.

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