No turtle doves! Alert over bird celebrated in Twelve Days of Christmas as numbers fall two thirds in five years
07:50 GMT, 7 December 2012
If you are expecting a gift of two turtle doves from your true love this Christmas, you may be disappointed.
For the bird, celebrated in the Twelve Days of Christmas, is in peril, conservationists have warned.
Latest figures show that the number of turtle doves has plummeted by nearly two thirds in five years and are in increasing danger of disappearing from the British countryside for ever.
Turtle doves are in danger of disappearing from the British countryside for ever, numbers have plummeted by nearly two thirds in the last five years
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds warned that the grey partridge – which features in the first verse of the song – is also under threat.
With just 14,000 turtle dove pairs in Britain the population is ‘balancing on a knife edge’, the RSPB said.
Dr Mark Eaton, a scientist with the charity, said: ‘Losing six out of ten of our turtle doves and three out of ten grey partridge in five years is nothing short of an unsustainable wildlife disaster.
‘The turtle dove is in a great degree of danger – if this trend were to continue we could be down to fewer than 1,000 pairs by the middle of the next decade, with complete extinction a real possibility.
‘These two icons of Christmas are telling us that wildlife is in crisis. We are urging the Government to take urgent action to save these species from becoming just memories within the 12 days of Christmas festive classic.’
Figures from the RSPB last month showed how the turtle dove and grey partridge populations have plummeted by 93 per cent and 91 per cent respectively since 1970.
Operation Turtle Dove: The RSPB has launched a three year project to save the turtle dove
But it appears that the decline in numbers of both birds has been particularly marked in the last five years.
Turtle doves are smaller and darker than the more common collared doves, and are only slightly larger than a blackbird. Their gentle purring call, and the fact that they bond for life, has made them an emblem of devoted love.
In reality, they have never been in Britain at Christmas because they migrate to Africa each September. Scientists believe the move to intensive farming in their sub-Saharan wintering grounds is robbing them of their natural habitat.
The birds may also be victims of droughts overseas, triggered by rising temperatures. And they are also being shot by Mediterranean hunters as they fly back to Britain in the spring. Disease may also be taking its toll.
The RSPB warning came as the Government published updated figures on Britain’s declining bird population.
They also showed that there are just 43,000 pairs of grey partridges left – a 30 per cent fall in five years.
The birds – one of two types of partridge native to the UK – may also being hit by changing farming practices.
In the Twelve Days of Christmas, the partridge in a pear tree is thought to represent Jesus, while the two turtle doves are supposed to stand for the Old and New Testaments.
The three French hens represent faith, hope and charity while the four calling birds are the four Gospels.
The RSPB has launched a three year project to save the turtle dove. Operation Turtle Dove encourages farmers to protect the hedgerows, for nesting, and plant wildflowers that produce seeds the turtle doves like to eat.
The charity’s Grahame Madge said: ‘We are in a race against time. We have already lost turtle doves in some key areas like the south west of England and parts of northern England. All across the range, their population is declining rapidly.’