It’s 4.30am and the sky is already light above Knepp, the Sussex estate whose 3,500 acres have been transformed from intensively farmed agricultural land to one of the richest natural environments in the country. I’m with Penny Green, the estate’s resident ecologist, and here to see turtle doves, birds whose mellifluous purring once played a starring role in the soundscape of British summers, but whose numbers have fallen by 93% since 1994.
Streptopelia turtur’s devastating decline is largely down to exactly the sort of commercial farming that Knepp’s owners, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, have set themselves against. It’s fitting, then, that one of the largest populations of nesting doves in the country – 16 pairs – is found right here.
We walk out towards the setting strawberry moon, hanging huge and milky over meadows in which thickets of oak, sallow and hawthorn rise. We walk long diagonals through fleabane and ragwort, the clay beneath our feet baked hard. In the corner of one field, we hear a strange croaking, then spy its source: a nightingale fledgling newly emerged from its nest.
It’s only as we head back that we see him, the turtle dove breasting the air, tawny in the sun, and then a flash of the scalloped intricacy of his back. He takes up residence in a nearby tree and begins to call. I didn’t hear turtle doves in my own childhood, but the sound is so powerfully evocative that it summons visions of old hot summers, of a time before pesticides and decades of poor stewardship drove these birds from our land.
One of Knepp’s white storks rises in the background, and butterflies and dragonflies dart around us, but I’m wholly focused on that stream of notes, which you seem to feel as much as hear. In Tree’s beautiful book about Knepp, Wilding, she describes how hearing the turtle dove gives you the impression of being “caught in the crosshairs of time”. And that is how it is, standing in this new-formed wilderness, listening to a bird that we are so close to losing but that still feels a vital part of our world.
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