By Eliza Mackintosh, Published: December 21
LONDON — Good luck trying to find a partridge in a pear tree in Britain this Christmas, or even less likely — the true love’s token of two turtledoves.
More than 200 years since the popular carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was first printed in London, many of its holiday icons are on the decline.
Recent statistics on wild birdlife in the U.K., published in a report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, have raised concerns about the survival of such classic Christmas symbols as the partridge and turtledove.
While the number of gray partridges in Britain is dwindling, turtledoves have virtually disappeared from Wales and northern areas of England, decreasing by 60 percent between 2005 and 2010. The remaining 14,000 turtledove pairs are confined to southeast England, down from 140,000 breeding pairs in 1970. The grey partridge population, estimated at 43,000 pairs, is faring slightly better with a drop of 30 percent over the same period.
If the decline continues at the same rate, scientists from the Royal Society for Protection of Birds estimate that there could be as few as 1,000 pairs of turtledoves a decade from now.
“We could lose this bird,” Mark Eaton, an RSPB scientist, said. “Many people might not know what one looks like or see one very often, but it’s in the Christmas song, it’s a symbol of love, Shakespeare wrote a poem about turtledoves, it has a great cultural significance here.”
In the spring, Operation Turtle Dove was launched as an emergency response to the bird’s decline. The group’s mission is to get support for research and to help “find ways of restoring the population to get turtledoves back in the countryside, where they belong,” RSPB spokesman Grahame Madge said. The RSPB says that cuts in the British government and European budgets could jeopardize agricultural subsidies, which help farmers care for birdlife on their lands .
“If they become extinct, all that will be left is a line in a song and nothing more,” Eaton added.
Turtledoves and partridges are not the only stars of the song taking a hit in Britain. Maids-a-milking, lords-a-leaping, pipers piping and drummers drumming also have been affected.
Since milkmaids were replaced by modern milking machines in the 1900s, the dairy industry in the United Kingdom has gradually decreased in size. According to statistics from DairyCo, the number of dairy farms in the U.K. has nearly halved over the past 10 years. In June 2011, there were 14,793 dairy farms, compared with 26,556 in 2001.
The House of Lords, which dates to the 14th century, suffered a brief scare this summer when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg put forward a bill to reform the government body. The House of Lords Reform Bill, which aimed to make the chamber more democratic, was voted down in its second reading. Conservative Members of Parliament argued that reform was not a priority in such a difficult economic climate.
Financial woes could also affect British regiments, which have pipers and drummers in their ranks. Ministry of Defense cuts, announced in July, will result in 23 military units being disbanded or combined, with 17 fewer units overall. The restructuring of the British army will reduce a force of 102,000 soldiers to 82,000 by 2020, although it is not clear what will become of the military bands.
Despite PNC Wealth Management’s claim that the economy is improving, prices continue to rise on almost all items featured in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The PNC’s yearly Christmas Price Index reports a 6.1 percent jump in the price tag for all of the song’s 364 gifts, which now rack up to a total of $107,300.
But, in the future, PNC may have to account for the utter lack of some of the carol’s Christmas staples.