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A forgotten song


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When was the last time you saw or heard a turtle dove in Essex?

Turtle doves were once common summer visitors to Essex. Now we only rarely hear their purring… and writer Anne Boileau misses it 

“The winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land”… Song of Solomon

I heard his call on Springwatch. It triggered something in my inner ear like a once-familiar voice or an old song not heard for many years; or like a tooth my tongue had forgotten was missing; it was the comfortable turr turr that had provided the background soundscape of my childhood summers. Scarcely noticed but calming, gentle, familiar.
I didn’t know what bird it was and didn’t think to inquire. A bit like a harpsichord or ’cello, unobtrusively providing the continuo for the more distinctive songs of blackbird, thrush, cuckoo, swallow; the monotonous chirp of the sparrow; the screech of swooping swifts; the little bit of bread and no cheese of the yellowhammer; the cheerful liquid notes of the skylark high up in the sky; the peewit of the lapwing nesting in arable fields, the great black and white flashing flocks of them displaying.
We listened and watched, we loved them all but took them for granted.
We could not know in the 1960s and 70s that, five decades on, many of these birds would be classified as in decline or even scarce. When Springwatch featured this little dove, so much more endearing than the large, unsubtle woodpigeon and smaller than the delicate collared dove, the sound of its turring took me back to summer evenings in Suffolk, in Dorset, in Nottinghamshire, in Essex.
Turtle doves migrate from Senegal or Guinea; their populations in the UK have fallen by 90 per cent in the last 20 years and it is not just the hunting in Malta and elsewhere – they require the seeds of arable weeds.
Of course, farmers have been busy eliminating weeds from their crops ­– the use of herbicides and obsessive tidiness has cleansed the tares from the wheat: common fumitory, groundsel, vetch, knotweed and so on. These little doves need such plants; they also need tall hedges or scrub for nesting, many of which have been cleared away.
I called on some friends in Little Horkesley who farm land sloping down to the River Stour. They’ve sown 25 acres with a wildflower seed mix specifically tailored to the needs of the turtle dove. It is a stewardship scheme and is supported and encouraged by Dedham Vale AONB.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this brave little migrant dove could be attracted back to Essex and Suffolk; it did return to the Knepp estate in West Sussex, as described by Isabella Tree in her book Wilding. We could once again draw comfort from that reassuring continuo, like a harpsichord, scarcely noticed but providing a note of confidence for the future of all our wildlife.

Anne Boileau
June 2021