It’s over three hundred years since the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, assisted by his dramatic chum John Vanbrugh, embarked on an important long-term development project in the rolling countryside east of York: Castle Howard - arguably one of the most historically and culturally significant houses in Britain, together with its 3.5,000 hectare estate, has dominated both the landscape and the rural economy of the Howardian Hills area of North Yorkshire ever since.
And another long-term project of a very different type - but every bit as vital - was celebrated on Saturday 13th January, in the opulent surroundings of the Baroque property’s Grecian Hall.
The North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project - was established in 2016 by a small team of volunteers and is led by committed conservationist Richard Baines, who continues (in one of his roles) as Volunteer Project Officer.
You’re not alone if this enigmatic, but under-appreciated bird isn’t currently on your radar. Although lauded by Shakespeare - and a folklore talisman for romance and love stretching back centuries - the reality is that this ecologically-unique species is the UK’s fastest decreasing bird (in numbers) and officially categorised as ‘Threatened with Extinction’ on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation) Red List of Endangered Species.
The North York Moors National Park (and the area of the county largely east of the A1 - and stretching south into the Howardian Hills) is now home to the only significant European Turtle Dove breeding population in the north. Data from the project’s website suggests there may now be fewer than 100 birds nesting in Yorkshire. Only 50 years ago, it was classed as a fairly common bird in our part of the world.
Concerns around the sustainable future of the species in North Yorkshire has resulted in annual structured surveys being undertaken since 2017 to monitor numbers. In 2022, Birds on the Edge, a partnership with the RSPB and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund started work. The project which now has a widened species brief, but very much has the Turtle Dove at its heart, surveys populations, monitors habitats, works with communities and land managers, delivers a far-reaching education programme - and is committed to ongoing engagement work, both with ‘traditional’ audiences - but especially with groups that might have previously encountered barriers to participation in outdoor/conservation activities.
Working alongside Tim Jones, the RSPB’s Birds on the Edge Project Officer, Richard Baines' efforts are utterly essential in not only keeping conservation at the very top of all our to-do lists, but just as crucially - providing both quantitative and qualitative evidence of the impact that partnership working, the right kind of community engagement and citizen science has on us as stakeholders in a functioning society.
And deploying art and creativity as a tool for ‘enthusing and engaging’ underpinned Saturday’s event at Castle Howard. In partnership with Leica Camera, the North York Moors National Park, the North York Moors Trust and the Howard Family - The ‘Doodle a Dove’ competition highlighted the plight of the European Turtle Dove - and also gave those of us with a modicum of artistic flair, the chance to spend a fab afternoon with some lovely people, actually hang-out with the Springwatch legend that is Iolo Williams - and also win some rather special prizes.
Following an introduction from host and ardent birder Nicholas Howard, Richard and Tim spoke with passion about a project that puts the North of England at the very centre of ecological safety for Streptopelia turtur.
Iolo Williams was on hand to not only congratulate competition winners, but also be predictably wonderful with his personalising and democratising call-to-action around our essential participation in acting as custodians of the natural world: “I remember my grandfather telling me that Turtle Doves were common in South Wales when he was young. Now they are only very rarely seen in lowland parts of the country.”
And like the bird itself, which makes an epic annual journey from Sub-Saharan Africa, some of Saturday’s winners had made big trips to be at the event. Benji, the winner of the Youth category had travelled with his mum from Sussex. His ‘doodle’, like those of fellow runners-up Daniel and Nancy, suggests that not only is the future of natural history art-making in good hands - but an awareness and concern for our environment too.
The standard of work in the Professional category was similarly impressive: Jeni Davies won the category, with runners-up Sarah Hutchinson and Ruth Weaver.
The Best ‘Doodle’ category winner was Earth Scientist, Geographer and Howardian Hills Natural Landscapes Project Officer Francesca Pert, who promised she didn’t have a side-gig as an accomplished artist - but did confirm that she had very probably inherited significant creative genes from her mum.
Gorgeous ‘doodles’ from runners-up Amy Primavera and Rebecca Appleton completed a collection of pictures that no doubt Richard has already decided will be in the 2025 North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project calendar.
All of the winners and finalists were presented with a sought-after gift bag from Leica - and Katie Stacey, PR & Marketing at Leica Sport Optics was clear why her organisation was involved: “From my experience working for Leica, they have consistently been committed to supporting and celebrating the people working on the frontlines of nature recovery and conservation across the UK. When I first met Richard and he told me about the work of the North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project, I knew it was the sort of project Leica would be proud to support. A mission that was not just about a beautiful bird, but also about the people working tirelessly to halt its decline. Meeting the volunteers, who are out in all weather conditions and at all hours, creating habitat and recording these iconic little birds, was inspiring.”
Events like Saturday’s counter what we are increasingly led to believe is an all-but-hopeless environmental trajectory. People working together from across the social spectrum is still one of the most effective ways to ensure we pass on a world to the next generation that is sustainable and we all feel invested in. While individuals like Richard and Tim are clearly our champions, large landowners such as Castle Howard are acutely aware of their role and responsibility. Guy Thallon, Head of Natural Environment on the estate explained: “While it obviously also has to make a sound business case - the family and the team here are committed to changing farming practices to make sure that our estate supports wildlife, biodiversity and conservation priorities.”
And leaders like James Metcalfe - the Executive Director of the North York Moors Trust, are equally aware and passionate about the role we all play in protecting and widening participation in caring for our outdoor spaces: “The North York Moors is such a vital place and one of my key objectives is to encourage more people to visit, actively take part in looking after it - and understand the importance of the landscape. Birds on the Edge is central to that.” The Trust is a key regional changemaker - and leads on a range of innovative and diverse projects, working with everyone from GP’s to students in alternative education.
And at the end of an excellent day for wildlife, people and community in North Yorkshire, Tom Hind, the Chief Executive of the North York Moors National Park sums up perfectly what perhaps we all hope: “I’ve always been a glass-half-full character - and while there are real challenges ahead, particularly around finance, farming and the changing landscape for all National Parks, I feel that continuing to build effective networks at a local, regional and national level to tackle the inevitable change, is key to a sustainable future for all of us.”
Initiatives such as ‘Doodle a Dove’, individuals like Richard Baines and the ongoing support of organisations including the Castle Howard Estate and the National Lottery Heritage Fund are absolutely fundamental not only for the survival of the European Turtle Dove, but also for the protection of our most cherished outdoor spaces.