The efforts of hundreds of farmers and landowners to boost turtle dove numbers has sparked hopes of a revival for this threatened bird species.

Operation Turtle Dove is a partnership including the Norfolk-based Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, the RSPB and Natural England.

When the project was launched in 2012, the turtle dove's prospects were bleak. Numbers had plummeted since the 1970s as changing farming methods removed food sources and habitats, while the birds also faced hunting threats on their 2,500-mile migration route from sub-Saharan Africa.

But now the team is celebrating a record year in its efforts to reverse these declines, working with 260 farms and another 107 land managers to create nesting and feeding grounds in the birds' remaining strongholds across eastern and southern England.

More than 360 turtle dove feeding plots have been created in 2023 - 100 more than last year - while the number of volunteers for monitoring and project delivery work has risen by 50pc.

Mike Shurmer, head of species for RSPB England, said: "The ambition of the communities we work with through Operation Turtle Dove to help save these iconic birds is nothing short of amazing, and if we continue with this momentum, it won’t be long before we can expect to see turtle dove numbers starting to rise across the UK."

That hope was shared by Norfolk farmer and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust chairman Kit Papworth, who said: "This is a great news story about farmers engaging with turtle doves, and we hope that numbers will start to build now.

"We are very optimistic because of these efforts across the UK, and abroad. But actually there are farmers doing some incredible work around Brisley in the Wensum Valley, where there are now significant numbers of turtle doves."

Fakenham & Wells Times: Norfolk farmer Kit Papworth is chairman of the Pensthorpe Conservation TrustNorfolk farmer Kit Papworth is chairman of the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust (Image: Newsquest)

Creating tailored feeding plots, maintaining dense scrub and hedgerows as nesting sites and providing seed food directly have all been shown to benefit turtle doves in focused UK trials.

Rebecca Pringle, of Natural England, added: "We are now in the third consecutive year of a turtle dove hunting ban along the Western European Flyway and – thanks to these two conservation approaches working hand in hand – it’s amazing to hear about birds returning to breed in parts of South East and Eastern England after the hard work and dedication of so many land managers and communities."