Creating habitats for turtle doves

As the environmental questions of the time become more varied and complex, policy-makers are turning to more creative policy solutions, including the use of auctions. We partnered with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and a team from the University of Oxford in an effort to slow the rapid decline of turtle doves. Turtle doves are the fastest declining species of bird in Britain and have become startling close to extinction in recent decades.[1] Much of the decline has been attributed to a fall in the availability of suitable nesting habitats for the birds, and while work can be done to cultivate these habitats on existing farmland, rehabilitation projects can require farmers to change elements of their land management. With funding for conservation limited, we wanted to find a solution efficiently to allocate funds towards facilitating the growth of turtle dove habitats, and therefore increase populations of the bird.

While auctions are most notably used to allocate resources for a price, they can also allocate obligations and corresponding payments. This is commonly called a reverse auction. We proposed that an advanced reverse auction using farmers’ bids to create and maintain habitats could allocate public funds in a way that would maximise the ecological benefits of the funds- but such an auction must take into account existing land features and the unique complementarities found in a successful turtle dove habitat.

Winner determination algorithms proved complex, but on the bidder side the auction needed to be user friendly enough to attract all possible participants. Guided by recommendations from a wildlife organisation, we weighted the three necessary habitat features (scrub, food, and water) by their importance and optimal ratios and distances. Additionally, we did not want to treat bids in isolation, but to analyse existing land features and those from neighbouring farms together to create the best possible local habitat. These considerations and the goal of maximising delivered ecological benefits within a specified budget formed the winner determination for the proposed regional, combinatorial auctions.

The first of these turtle dove habitat auctions ran in 2021 in four areas across Norfolk and Suffolk. The scheme allocated half a million pounds to winners committed to maintaining turtle dove habitats on their land.

[1] RSPB, Operation Turtle Dove,