How an auction helps British turtledoves

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“AS SUN today, like a turtle to his mate, ”says Shakespeare’s Troilus of his commitment to Cressida. Chaucer wrote of “the married turtledove with her true heart.” Yet Britain has not been kind to these migratory birds, whose numbers in the British Isles have declined by 98% since the 1970s to around 3,600 breeding pairs in 2016.

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Paul Klemperer, Elizabeth Baldwin and Alex Teytelboym, all from the University of Oxford, are using the economy to help. They designed a reverse auction in which farmers publicly bid on contracts to provide suitable habitat. It’s more complicated than it looks. Doves need wildflower seeds to eat, shallow open water to drink, and thick, bushy hedges for nesting, all nearby. A farmer may wish to provide only one or two and rely on his neighbors for the rest. In addition, breeding pairs should be able to find the sites, but they should not be too clustered. And finally, the habitats offered by farmers can vary in quality and price – a problem Mr Klemperer encountered during the global financial crisis, when designing an auction in which the Bank of England offered emergency loans to banks against collateral of varying quality.

To solve it this time, economists have constructed an index of the happiness of turtledoves (TDH, or “ta-das”). An algorithm searches for auction combinations, seeking to maximize the ta-das for a given budget. The offers compete and complement each other: a high-priced offer to grow wildflowers could outweigh a cheaper offer if it was closer to a nesting site, and thus create more ta-das. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity, used the system in two pilot auctions in Norfolk and Suffolk, attracting 63 bidders. The last one closed in June and the seeds should be sown in the fall.

The experiments are being funded by the government as part of a larger post-Brexit effort to reorient agricultural subsidies towards supporting the provision of public goods. The European Union’s common agricultural policy, which rewards intensive agriculture, has resulted in the loss of diverse natural habitats for wildlife of all kinds.

Yet international cooperation is also important to save the turtledoves, which migrate to sub-Saharan Africa in winter, risking being shot by hunters from mainland Europe along the way. In June, activists won when most parts of Spain banned bird hunting for a year. They hope that in the fight to save these symbols of love and loyalty, better habitats at home and less hunting abroad will align.

This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Doveish policy”

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