It’s best know for its part in the traditional festive song, the 12 days of Christmas.

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But this year a national campaign group has warned that the much-loved turtle dove revered in literature and folklore as a symbol of love and devotion continues to be one of the country’s most threatened birds.

Its numbers have crashed by 85pc in the past 18 years and sightings this summer were the lowest ever.

Yet in Norfolk farmers and wildlife enthusiasts have been playing a crucial role in helping to bring the threatened turtle doves back from the brink of extinction.

Operation Turtle Dove, a three-year project launched at Pensthorpe Nature Reserve near Fakenham in May last year, is a partnership with Pensthorpe, the RSPB and Natural England which aims to reverse an alarming decline in the bird’s numbers.

About 1,250 people rang in to the operation’s hotline this year to report sightings – with Norfolk spotting the most – helping conservationists build up a vital picture of where the birds are nesting and foraging.

The cause of its population crash is not fully understood, but its diet consists almost entirely of seeds from wild plants, which have become scarce in a modern countryside dominated by intensive farming.

Simon Tonkin, farmland advisor for Operation Turtle Dove, said: “Although we sing about turtle doves at Christmas, in fact they are in their African wintering grounds at this time of year. But closer to home we believe it is the loss of arable plants from our countryside which is having a major impact on them.

“These birds spend the summer in England where they rely on wild plants for food – but the way we farm today has meant there is often no room for them at the edge of fields.

“Turtle doves are a symbol of enduring love from Chaucer to Shakespeare and their unmistakable purr is an intrinsic part of the English summer.

“We must act urgently to save these beautiful creatures now while we still can – because if we don’t they will disappear from England entirely within a generation.

“It has been truly heart-warming this year to see the way the public and farmers have rallied to their cause by putting conservation measures in place, raising money and spreading the word.

“Together we may be able to save this very special species.”

Captive birds are being studied to see which seed mixtures are the most palatable and nutritious – and the most viable for farmers to plant under agri-environment stewardship schemes.

And with £16m worth of funding for farmers to carry out these schemes to help benefit the birds, advisors have visited farms to help them put in place measures to enable turtle doves bounce back.

A review of the project to date has shown about 158,147 acres of farmland across the country is now covered by turtle dove measures.

To find out more about the campaign visit






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