If you wanted a turtle dove, forget it

DON'T EXPECT much from your true love this Christmas, for the nursery-rhyme gifts for the 12 days of the festive season are almost all endangered.

Turtle doves - given on the second day - are declining so precipitously that English Nature, the Government's official wildlife watchdog, has just launched a two-year study to find out why they are in trouble and to try to work out a rescue plan. Tiny radio transmitters have been fitted to the doves in Suffolk and south Lincolnshire so they can be tracked to see what happens to them.

Almost every other gift on the nursery-rhyme list is in a similar plight, from the partridge - whose numbers are dwindling even faster than the turtle doves' - to the lords and ladies threatened by the reform of the House of Lords.

Grey partridges (first day) used to be one of the most common birds, so plentiful that more than two million were shot each year before the Second World War. Now there are only half a million, about a quarter as many as just 25 years ago. Shooting is less to blame than pesticides which kill the insects the chicks eat.

The number of turtle doves has fallen by two-thirds since the early 1970s. The billing and cooing romantic bird, the smallest of British pigeons, faces hazards at every stage of its annual migration. It has been hit by repeated droughts and the cutting down of trees in the African Sahel, where it spends the winter; it has to run the gauntlet of French hunters on its way here in the spring; and it has been devastated in Britain by the disappearance of hedgerows, where it nests, and clover fields, where it feeds.

French hens (third day), says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), were red-legged partridges, brought to this country from France in the 18th century. They are in serious decline, here and across Europe, again largely as a result of pesticides.

Colly birds (fourth day) were probably blackbirds, says the RSPB ("Colly" means as black as coal). They are still one of Britain's most common birds, but their numbers have dropped by a third in the past 15 years - partly as a result of intensive farming and partly because they fall prey to the rising number of cats in suburban gardens.

The price of gold, as in rings (fifth day) has been falling dramatically and now - at about $290 (pounds 178) an ounce - is at its lowest level this decade.

Geese (sixth day), by contrast, are doing too well. The numbers of Canada geese, the football hooligans of the bird world, have increased 30-fold since 1950. A Government committee has been sitting for years to work out what to do with the increasing menace, with little success. How about an unusual Christmas lunch?

Swans (seventh day) are also in no trouble. They took a battering in the Seventies and Eighties when they were poisoned by lead weights used by anglers, but have recovered since these were banned.

Milkmaids (eighth day) are almost extinct. The Royal Association of Dairy Farmers says that probably only a few tens of farmers now milk entirely by hand, and as they almost certainly can't afford to employ anybody they would have to have industrious daughters.

Drummers and pipers (ninth and 10th days) are much reduced following the Ministry of Defence's axing of a third of military bands this decade. And we all know the Government's plans for hereditary lords and ladies (11th & 12th days). They might be better off as turtle doves.

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