On the last weekend of March, I attended the first ever Bird Migration & Nature Festival of the Strait of Gibraltar at Huerta Grande and it was great to see friends and supporters of Conservation Grade. At the festival I was presenting the work of Conservation Grade and our other partners in Operation Turtle Dove – RSPB, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England.
The parlous state of this species, not only in the UK (93% decline) but also across Europe (70% decline according to the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Programme), struck everybody whether they be Spanish, Portuguese, German or English with terror that this beautiful species is vanishing so rapidly from our European countryside.
Whilst it’s true that many Turtle Doves are needlessly killed on migration by hunters it is also true that the way in which we farm is having a disastrous impact on the species, so much so that the level of hunting that this bird used to be able to weather is having an ever increasing impact on the dwindling number of fledged birds per year.
Tortola Europea, or Turtle Dove to you and I, is the farmland equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. The more naturally occurring and summer seed bearing plants we remove from our farms in the ongoing pursuit of maximised production, the less food there is available for Turtle Doves to convert to crop-milk to feed their young.
It’s likely that some of our Turtle Doves cross into Europe at the Strait of Gibraltar on their long journey north from the Sahelian region of sub-Saharan Africa and certainly large concentrations can be found at the farmed area of La Janda in the Straits during migration. I often wonder how many of them might just have been on a Conservation Grade farm weeks before their return migration where habitats have been created especially for them?
Yet it’s not just Conservation Grade farmers in the UK doing their bit for Turtle Doves but also our friends at Vitacress with Conservation Grade accredited farms in both Portugal and Spain.
Barn Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins were observed crossing the 14km of narrow sea into Europe (hopefully on their way back to a Conservation Grade farm near you!) but also large numbers of White Storks, with Booted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles too. I was lucky enough to watch impressive (and undoubtedly to my mind beautiful) Griffon Vultures and Egyptian Vultures with my Spanish friends …fantastic! But, just like the Turtle Dove, these wondrous Vultures are also are not immune to the way in which we farm.
Vultures are the great ecological recyclers of our world and are vital to the health and well-being of our environment. Yet in India, Pakistan and Nepal a powerful anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, has nearly wiped out vulture populations. The shocking decline is down to the use of this veterinary drug, toxic to any vulture that feeds on the carcass of recently treated cattle.
Now a repeat of this ecological disaster is threatening Europe. Despite the fact that safe alternative drugs are readily available, such as meloxicam, diclofenac has been authorised for use on domestic animals in Italy, and in Spain where 80% of European vultures live, and is now becoming widely available on the EU market.
I hope the EU will call for an immediate ban on the use of this drug so that those wondrous days I had watching soaring vultures with my Spanish friends can be repeated again and again for many more years to come if conservation work for these species is not radically undone by ill-thought out policy.
You can add your voice here to the campaign and help the European farmers friend and our impressive ecological recycler!