Updated: Nov 12, 2020
The recovery of our Red Kite population is one of great success stories of British conservation. By World War 1, centuries of persecution meant just a few remained in central Wales where they survived only because a few thoughtful farmers decided to protect them.
The Welsh birds gradually increased, but so diminished were they, that genetic tests in the late 1970’s showed that the entire Welsh population was descended from a single female. And then, in 1989, birds from Sweden were released into the Chilterns and they immediately thrived. Further introductions in Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and Scotland have done well too and we now have at least 10,000 birds in the UK.
I can’t remember the last daylight journey on the M40 when I didn’t see a Red Kite and my personal record is 32 individuals in one trip. The best spot always was around the chalk cutting but the birds are everywhere in our area now. Welsh Kites have increased too and a feeding station at Gigrin Farm attracts hundreds of birds at a time. It’s an amazing sight to watch them all wheeling and swooping as they snatch the pieces of meat thrown out for them
And it’s vital that Red kites were reintroduced as it is a threatened species restricted entirely to Europe and with a total population of less than 25.000 pairs. Spain was their former stronghold, but numbers have collapsed as changes in farming methods have reduced their habitat. But the good news is that northern European birds are doing well and it is thought that the British population alone might reach 10.000 pairs if it continues to increase at the present rate.
Red Kites are superb flyers and it is a joy to watch them soaring effortlessly on their near-two metre wingspans, riding the thermals and banking and twisting with subtle shifts of their extraordinarily mobile long forked tails. No doubt because they are such large and graceful creatures they have become very popular with the public too, and Red Kite watercolours and prints are now amongst my best selling images.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that Red Kites will attack your cat or chickens as, they may be big but they are really just scavengers. One once swooped to take a bacon scrap off our lawn completely ignoring our two bantams pecking around the same spot. They are in fact more than happy to stuff themselves with worms and beetles from a recently ploughed field. They even take insects in flight and recently on the Thames I counted eight birds, together with no less than seven hobbies, hawking for mayflies over one stretch of the river.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon found Red Kites living in our cities too, especially if people put food out for them. They are already nesting in the outskirts of Newcastle and their big, scruffy nests could even become a feature in the oaks of Hyde Park once more. They certainly used to be very common in London, as Shakespeare himself noted, and their close cousin the Black Kite is abundant in African and Indian cities, where they scavenge for food in the rubbish heaps along with the feral dogs and pigs.
So, look out for these magnificent birds sailing above you because if they’re not in your area yet, they probably will be soon.
Originally published in Four Shires Magazine