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Barford Features

This month, we feature an article on the red kite, a bird of prey which has recently been re-introduced to the English countryside after being close to extinction....

Red kites - a conservation success story

Few birds combine majestic size, a unique shape, consummate skill in the air and rich colours as the rare and spectacular red kite. It is simply a star.

Red kites were once widespread all over Britain. Centuries ago, they were common scavengers in the filthy streets of medieval and Elizabethan London, but were greeted in the countryside by guns, traps and poisons. By the end of the 19th century, they had gone from England and Scotland. Only a handful survived in central Wales.

In recent years, attitudes towards birds of prey have improved, and red kites were legally protected. The number of kites in Wales increased, but still showed little sign of expansion back into England. Yet large areas of the English countryside remained perfectly suitable for kites. With the reasons for its original decline removed, but apparently unlikely to return naturally, the red kite was the perfect candidate for a considered reintroduction scheme. So in 1989, the Nature Conservancy Council, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) decided to reintroduce kites to England. Since then, dedicated efforts by scientists and conservationists have brought them back from the verge of extinction.

The recovery of the red kite is a tribute to the co-operation of many landowners, gamekeepers and farmers, who helped in the long struggle to conserve the birds, many of them proud to have the birds on their land and eager to ensure their continued safety. Their efforts have been instrumental in the tremendous success in England and Scotland and also in the steady increase in the Welsh population.

Over the first five years, 186 young red kites, from healthy populations in Spain and Sweden, were released in southern England and northern Scotland. Some moved away, but returned when they were old enough to breed. In 1995, more were released into a new area of the Midlands by the RSPB and English Nature, working with Forest Enterprise, and in 1996 a second release site in Scotland was established by Scottish Natural Heritage.

The population in the Chilterns is now large enough to provide nestlings for release in other parts of England, which has helped the kite to spread to new areas more quickly. Birds from the Chilterns have already been released in the east Midlands in 1997 and 1998, and the following year 20 Chilterns nestlings were taken for release in Yorkshire. This new site brought quick success, with a pair breeding just a year later.

In 2000, eleven years after the reintroduction programme started, a survey estimated 259 breeding pairs in Wales, the area still having some native birds, 40 pairs in Scotland, 112 pairs in southern England, 16 in the Midlands and 3 in northern England. A total of 430 breeding pairs nesting in the UK would hardly have seemed possible 10 years ago.

Peter Newbery, the RSPB's Red Kite Action Plan Manager said, "Red kites have become a familiar sight in several different parts of the country. They are now very much at home in areas where they have been missing for over a century, and this is a real conservation success story."

Red kites like mixed farmland with plenty of woods and trees in undulating or hilly areas, and eat mainly dead animals and offal. They find most of their food within 3 to 4 km of their nest or roost site, although they travel further afield if necessary. Carrion is the most important part of the diet, and a dead rabbit is enough to attract a number of kites. Live rabbits, voles, mice, rats, beetles, young gulls and crows, even the occasional frog or fish are also caught. Sometimes they scavenge at refuse tips and abattoirs.

Unfortunately, rats form much of the diet of red kites in some areas. They forage around farm buildings, often where rats and mice are poisoned. They take mainly dead, or dying, rats that are likely to contain poisons; the kites are therefore likely to eat poison by accident. Warfarin was the usual remedy to rat infestations until the 1980's. But its toxicity was relatively low, and rats became partially immune to poisoning. New poisons are up to 600 times more toxic, and not surprisingly the accidental poisoning of wildlife has increased. It is a worrying situation, which threatens to spoil the party, and one which the RSPB is watching closely.

How to recognise red kites

Kites are large birds, though lightweight for their size, with long flexible wings and a distinctive long, forked tail that twists in flight to provide great agility in the air. They are magnificent flyers, circling tirelessly for hours on their slender wings, usually bent at the "wrist".

They are reddish brown in colour, with a lighter head and light bands under the wings which are prominent in flight.

Where you can see red kites

In England, the western Chilterns offer an excellent opportunity for kite spotting, especially close to the M40 where it cuts through the hills between junctions 5 and 4.

So next time you are travelling by road to London, keep a sharp eye open (with the other firmly on the road of course if you are driving!). You are very likely to see red kites wheeling over the chalky Chilterns, with their vast fringed wings coasting the themals.

Links for more information about red kites

Kite Country

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds


Glasgow zoo

British Ecological Society

English Nature

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Red kite

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