Dove Step with Jonny Rankin: Interview

One of the most exciting aspects of walking can be an unexpected sighting of birds or other wildlife. Some of our most popular blog posts are about the wildlife we can encounter whilst out in the countryside, such as birds or prey, bats and hares. In this interview we find out about an iconic bird that is in trouble and how walking and adventure are helping to bring attention its plight.

The Turtle Dove is smaller than a collared dove
The Turtle Dove has distinctively mottled with chestnut and black upperparts. Source: Flickr by Andy Morffew.

That bird is the Turtle Dove and our interview is with naturalist Jonny Rankin who is campaigning to save it from extinction. Jonny is a bird watcher, beer drinker and BMX biker who has has combined bird watching, walking and adventure to raise money and awareness for the Turtle Dove.

The turtle dove is a dainty dove, smaller and darker than the collared dove and slightly larger than a blackbird. Its upperparts are distinctively mottled with chestnut and black and its black tail has a white edge.

The gentle purr of the turtle dove is an evocative sound of summer, but has become increasingly rare following rapid and sustained population declines. RSPB Bird Guide.

In our interview Jonny tells us where we can see Turtle Doves when we’re out walking and explains why they are in trouble. We asked him to tell us about his fund raising initiatives including last years’ Dove Step long distance walk which raised over £3,000 for Operation Turtle Dove and his plans for a multi-activity adventure Dove Step 2, which he will embark upon this spring. Jonny also shares his hard learnt advice on choosing walking equipment and his favourite outdoor gear.

Jonny Rankin Dove Step Interview

CheapTents: What sparked your interest in turtle doves?

Jonny Rankin: I grew up in County Durham and saw my first Turtle Dove whilst walking around Hurworth Burn Reservoir with my Dad, I am unsure of the exact age but I suspect I was around 10 years old at the time. From this initial sighting every time I see a Turtle Dove is a sure highlight of that day.
It’s hard to be specific as to why Turtle Doves have captured my attention so vividly, but they have become a firm favourite, perhaps for little reason beyond that they are beautiful and I like them!

CheapTents: Whereabouts in the UK and in what type of countryside environment do turtle doves live?

Jonny Rankin: Turtle Doves are summer visitors to the UK arriving in late April and leaving again by September. Their summer range is focused on the south and east of the country; with the core distribution from Kent in the south up to Lincolnshire in the north. Previously they were much more common and more readily encountered to the west and north but there has been a 96% decline in breeding birds since 1970.

Lowland agricultural areas with open woodland, copses and rich vegetation are traditionally best for Turtle Dove as they rely upon seeded plants for food and non-intensive farmland with rich borders, scrub and hedgerows.

Jonny Rankin and Sir Robert Yaxley finish the Dove Step
Jonny Rankin and Sir Robert Yaxley at RSPB Saltholme: the finish of the 300 mile Dove Step walk. Photo copyright Lydia Tague, RSPB Saltholme.

CheapTents: How can walkers and climbers maximise their chances of observing turtle doves in the wild?

Jonny Rankin: Turtle Doves prefer lowlands as such climbers aren’t best placed to see them once they get over 500m asl.

For walkers the east of England is one of the core regions for Turtle Dove. Two long distance footpaths offering good opportunities are the Iceni Way and the Hereward Way. I have seen Turtle Dove at Knettishall Heath that forms the start of the Iceni Way and also along the Little Ouse section of the Hereward Way; which actually formed the start of our first Dove Step journey.

These two paths aside, any areas matching the requirements listed in my answer to question number two would give walkers a good chance, early mornings are a especially good time to listen for Turtle Doves giving their ‘purring’ call.

CheapTents: Why are turtle dove populations under threat and what can be done to help them?

Jonny Rankin: At a European level Turtle Doves have declined by 74% since 1980 with the population suffering on all fronts; changes in farming practice here in the UK and on the near continent, shooting on migration and changes on the wintering grounds. This is on top of the rigours of migrating to and from sub-Saharan Africa each year!

Operation Turtle Dove (OTD) and its constituent partners led by the RSPB are at the forefront of halting Turtle Dove decline, you can read all about OTD on the website and the best way to help Turtle Doves is to support these ongoing efforts. This is why we fundraise for Operation Turtle Dove via the Dove Step journeys.
RSPB Operation Turtle Dove logo
OTD work with farmers to install Turtle Dove friendly habitat providing seeds to coincide with their arrival from Africa and again later in the season when they have chicks to feed. They are also conducting research to better understand the changes on Turtle Dove wintering grounds and challenges on migration.

We raised enough via last years journey for OTD to install 9 hectares of Turtle Dove habitat in the East of England. This is well timed as the government is currently between agri-environmental schemes through which farmers can receive payment for positively managing plots for wildlife (inclusive of Turtle Doves). That our efforts have helped fill this void is inspiring and good motivation to keep pushing on with the Dove Step campaign.

I am also petitioning the European Parliament to revise the EU Turtle Dove Management Plan; at present 2 – 4 million Turtle Dove are shot on migration by member states. These figures are completely at odds with the severe decline of the species across the region.

Supporting our ongoing Dove Step efforts via the JustGiving page sends funds directly to OTD via the RSPB. The JustGiving Page for this years effort is at this link;

CheapTents: What gave you the idea of taking on adventures to help raise awareness and money for turtle dove conservation?

Jonny Rankin: 2015 marks our 4th year of fundraising for Operation Turtle Dove; we started with a 24 hour bird count back in 2012 – which actually resulted in staying up for 48 hours straight! I then did The Anglesey Half Marathon with teammate Goodrick in 2013 before last year’s 300 mile walk with Sir Rob and Goodrick. Last Autumn I also did my first marathon supporting another Dove Step teammate Tris who ran 14 marathons within 2014.

Each year we like to see what is possible within ourselves; I didn’t know I could stay up for 48 hours straight, run half and full marathons or walk 300 miles 4 years ago. Our adventures are basically as a result of choosing activities we feel we may be able to do and seeing how we get on!

I am very fortunate in that I have a very encourage-able group of friends with a good appetite and skill set for adventure. All the successes over the last few years are due to sharing the experiences with my friends and muddling though together!
Dove Step logo

CheapTents: Operation “Dove Step” was a 300 mile walk through the summering Turtle Dove range in England. What was the most challenging aspect of this adventure?

Jonny Rankin: Our inexperience I suppose, if I was to set off again tomorrow I would do a number of things differently; buy new and lighter weight boots and much lighter equipment.

The boots I wore were very traditional leather-upper boots I had already walked literally hundreds of training miles in. On reflection I would have got a new lightweight pair for the walk; with good cushioning and synthetic uppers. We also set out with far too much weight in our packs, using the tents, bags and flasks we’d used in training none of which were lightweight or even size-consciously designed. Carrying over 20kg for the first few days pounded our feet until we jettisoned unnecessary equipment on the fourth night.

Still, despite the poor choice of kit on the first Dove Step journey we kept to schedule and completed the 300 miles in the intended 13 days. Just perhaps under needless hardship at times! Walking the miles with Goodrick and crossing the finish line with Sir Rob easily stands as one of the proudest moments of my life. We did it – 300 miles in 13 days and raised £3k for Turtle Doves!

CheapTents: “Dove Step 2” will comprise of a 21 nautical mile sea kayak, 500 mile cycle and 175 mile walk. What is the idea behind this adventure?

Jonny Rankin: The first Dove Step journey saw us walk the length of the UK breeding range for Turtle Dove. It only seems right that we now turn our attention to the Afro-European migratory route. To this end and maintaining the self propelled nature of our journey we wanted to kayak straight across the channel to make landfall and immediately get on the bikes. Sadly, this is not achievable for a number of reasons not least the French authorities heightened sensitivity around immigration at the Port of Calais.

Dove Step 2 logo nd route map
Dove Step 2 will follow the Afro-European migratory route of the Turtle Dove

So, in place of a channel crossing we will do a 21 nautical mile ‘channel equivalent’ paddle down the east coast before begrudgingly taking the Dover to Calais ferry. Once on French soil we will start cycling; 90 miles a day for six days. We introduced cycling to help deal with the sheer distance we wish to cover and as a new challenge for much of the team. Along with learning to sea kayak the road cycling has provided several mini adventures across training weekends, with plenty more to come ahead of our April start date.

The final walking leg some 175 miles from Bordeaux will add continuity to last year’s efforts and form the third discipline of our take on a triathlon. We intend to cover this distance in 6 days.

CheapTents: What training are you doing for “Dove Step 2”?

Jonny Rankin: At present the team and I are gently ramping up after the festive break. I spent last weekend with cycling leg team leader Ed Waterston; getting used to my bike and logging some road miles. Next weekend I am at sea with Nomad Sea Kayaking and kayak leg team leader Kurt Finch.

Otherwise I train 5 – 6 days a week with a mix of runs, exercise bike work and general core and body weight exercises. Having had an excellent Christmas and New Year I don’t feel at peak fitness right now! But our training is designed to peak in early April with distances gently increasing over time.

CheapTents: What difficulties do you envisage whilst preparing for and during “Dove Step 2”?

Jonny Rankin on a pdeal cycle
Jonny Rankin training for Dove Step 2 on his bike.

Jonny Rankin: We try not to deal in problems – only solutions! Sometimes the geographical barrier between the team members can come into play; we are spread across the country from Cumbria in the north-west to East Anglia in the south east. This does mean we have to plan training weekends carefully but on the other hand it means we really value to time together and it adds to the overall excitement of our Dove Step campaign.

Otherwise key problems are as to expected; fatigue over the 14 days of exertion and avoiding the hottest parts of the day, especially as we get further south. To this end we intend to start riding and walking pre-dawn to beat the hottest part of the day.

CheapTents: What are your favourite bits of outdoor gear, and why?

Jonny Rankin:

  • Bridgedale Socks – thanks to their ongoing support of the Dove Step campaign I (and the whole team) have a sock for every situation! From WoolFusion Trekkers used on the first journey to lightweight CoolFusion Speed Demons for when we are eating miles through the south of France; we are well looked after. We also have Duo Lite hats that we’ve been wearing under our helmets on winter training rides as well as Pulse beanies that are super cozy when kayaking.
  • JetBoil – a new piece of kit in my arsenal but a superb one. Super quick to boil up whether after a hard days paddling, cycling or walking – you know you can have a good feed within minutes of stopping.
  • Osprey Pack – my day pack is an Osprey one and is really well designed. I only wish I’d upgraded my old-school full sized pack before the first Dove Step journey; it weights about 10kg before you put anything in it!

CheapTents: Any people or sponsors that you’d like thank?

Jonny Rankin: Firstly massive thanks to Sir Robert Yaxley for his continued dedication to Dove Step, equally a massive thanks to Sven Wair for adding the ‘voice of reason’ to proceedings and checking my written output such as this interview! I am also eternally indebted to the rest of the team and extended Dove Step family too – I cannot wait to get back out there with you in April!

As mentioned already Bridgedale Socks need a huge thank you as they are hugely supportive of the Dove Step campaign and have been since the very beginning.

Similarly supportive are Wild Frontier Ecology our sole corporate sponsor who match-funded the first journey mile for pound, giving a huge boost to our overall fundraising total.

BlackBar Brewery also need a mention; for brewing Dove Step beer! Whilst we walked last year people in the Cambridge area were drinking Dove Step ale and we even had barrels waiting for us at both Frampton Marsh and Saltholme RSPB reserves along the way.

CheapTents: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Jonny Rankin: With many thanks for the interview, our aim with the Dove Step campaign is two-fold; to raise both awareness and funds via our efforts. Your interview is a great opportunity to spread the word and please do follow our journey via the Dove Step 2 blog once we commence on 18th April.

CheapTents: Many thanks Jonny for telling us about the Turtle Dove and your adventures. Good luck with Dove Step 2!

For more interviews on the CheapTents blog click through to our Athletes and Interviews category where you can find interviews with more outdoor enthusiasts, mountainers and adventurers such as Alastair Humphreys and Dave Cornthwaite.


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