Norfolk has more than 350 registered commons, many are rich in wildlife and most have public access making them great places to explore and enjoy. Common land is often very different in character from the surrounding more intensively farmed land and many of these often ancient areas retain features, historic and archaeological as well as wildlife habitats such as ponds, wildflower rich grasslands, damp, boggy areas and patches of scrub, gorse and trees. For all these reasons they are fascinating areas to discover.
As we begin our new monthly journey celebrating the wealth and diversity of wildlife that can be found on our Norfolk commons, I think it fitting we focus on a rather special bird; one that embodies the hypnotic warmth of those gentle summer days when all in the world seems right. A bird whose unobtrusive song provides part of that pleasant background noise without which no summer day would be complete: the turtle dove.
Everybody has heard of the turtle dove, it features in much familiar song, verse and folklore. The bird has mention as far back as the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament (see quote)
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come. And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land
It is celebrated each Christmas when we regale one another with our rendition of the 12 days of Christmas '… two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree’ ; it features in numerous sonnets and verse, Shakespeare felt moved to pen tribute to this enigmatic symbol of love, and Vaughan Williams arranged a popular choral tribute. An association with lost or regenerated love is a common theme reflecting the birds’ migratory habits, leaving our shores each autumn to return afresh each spring to fill our commons, hedgerows and heathlands with its gentle, soporific purring. A familiar bird then, but when was the last time you actually saw or heard one? That’s got you thinking I hope.
When I was an energetic, enthused young naturalist in the 1970s it seemed turtle doves were everywhere. I can remember finding their threadbare nests in stands of hawthorn pretty much wherever I went. Couples would bedeck telegraph wires suspended across every field, and in late summer groups would gather to feast on fallen seed around those wonderful old Norfolk farmsteads with those unique red pantile roofed barns. Watching these tortoiseshell-coloured birds harvesting the plunder on hot, cloudless summer days is a memory dear to my heart.
But sadly it is just that; a memory. For the fact is that turtle doves are currently having a hard time with numbers plummeting across most of northern Europe. They have suffered a massive decline in the UK over the past 25 years making extinction within these shores a real possibility. Whereas in the early 1970s up to 1,000 were recorded passing along our coast on a single April day, nowadays any sighting prompts a literal red letter alert on the hotline for birders. Reasons for this decline are complex: links to climate change together with changing land use across wintering grounds in Africa; changes in farming practises at home resulting in fewer wayside seeds upon which the birds depend; and the unrelenting slaughter of migrating birds as they cross Mediterranean lands all play a part. This is why certain habitats, such as our ancient and largely unmolested commons, are so valuable, providing precious sanctuary for these rather beautiful birds to feed, nest and go about their lives in peace.
Turtle doves are summer visitors to these shores, arriving during late April and departing when the first chill of autumn bites. They are colourful birds with subtle grey and pink plumage around their head and breast, white underparts and the most vivid rust margined feathering on wings and back. A distinctive feature is the black and white zebra striped neck patch.
Despite their decline, Norfolk does still hold a thinly scattered population. Good places to encounter them are on the NWT reserves at New Buckenham Common, Weeting Heath and Foxley Wood. Other likely sites will be the heathlands of North Norfolk, or the relatively quiet commons south of Norwich. A developing hotspot is the Cut-off Channel that runs along the eastern edge of the Fens. Here sympathetic management work is proving beneficial to turtle doves as well as other much loved songsters such as nightingales.
We are asking people for sightings of turtle doves in Norfolk
By helping record their whereabouts, and yourself becoming involved in this project, you can, in a small but important way, help to ensure their continued existence in our countryside and in our lives.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Barry Madden. Header photo by Julian Thomas