Red Kites: You Can’t Keep a Good Raptor Down

Red Kite

After a lazy start to the day, I was having breakfast in a rather noncommittal manner late one Saturday morning. Just as I thought that the most dramatic moment of the morning would be whether I had brown or red sauce with my bacon, my Dad starting gesturing wildly at a disturbingly large, bright red eagle that appeared over the hedge and flew into our garden. Of course, this wasn’t an eagle. It was bright red. It was none other than a red kite. Luckily, the bird was flying low over our garden, so you could clearly see the unmistakable russet colour on the chest and wings, the dapper white bars on the under wings and the finishing touch of the crisp black primaries. I had seen them before in the wild, but in the countryside… I never imagined I would be seeing one in my own back garden in the city of Nottingham!

The story of the red kite in the United Kingdom is one of modern success in bird and animal conservation. For various reasons (mostly to do with “land management”) red kites had been persecuted, shot and poisoned to the very brink of extinction by the twentieth century, with only a handful of breeding pairs left in mid Wales. From this very small British stock, with additions from Sweden and Germany to widen the gene pool, they’ve been reintroduced across the country. And they have taken to these areas like ducks to water: you can now see the reintroduced populations in Northumberland, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire.

The best place to see these fantastic raptors at close quarters (but not too close, don’t worry) is at one of the licensed red kite feeding stations in the UK. A few years ago my parents took me to Gigrin Farm, Wales, which is one of the top red kite feeding stations in the country. I remember sitting in a wooden hide of half an hour before the daily feeding time, and watching the show unfold. All the sheep in the field must have known what time it was, because they started to scarper pretty darn quickly. And then they arrived. Hundreds upon hundreds of these beautiful raptors flew in and took up a perch in the trees surrounding the edge of the field, waiting. Then the guy with the meat lorry turned up, and churned out lumps of raw meat onto the field. It was absolutely astounding to see at least 500 of these fantastic creatures swooping down onto the field to feed. It’s something that I will never forget. Below is a wonderful video taken by Gigrin Farm:

Since red kites have been reintroduced around the country, and are quite often supported by local feeding stations, they have spread across England and Wales and if you’re in the area you might see one on the off-chance.  The area in the country where you are most likely to see a red kite without going to a feeding station would be the motorways between Oxford and London, since the red kite populations have really taken well after their reintroduction to the Chilterns. To help you figure out whether the bird you’re looking at is a red kite, I’ve annotated some of the photos I took of the bird in our back garden:

After their successful reintroduction to several areas of the country, the red kite populations have been steadily pushing north and red kites have been seen in Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire over the past few years, but it is highly unusual for a sighting to occur in the city of Nottingham; potentially the first since Tudor times. This is the ultimate success of the red kites: not only have they thrived where they’ve been reintroduced, but they’ve also spread to these areas in the Midlands. They seem to be doing really well despite some very mysterious disappearances in the area. It’s always worth being mindful of those individuals who would see themselves as being above the law and deal out cruel deaths to animals for whatever reason, and sadly red kites have fallen foul of these individuals (this website offers some chilling reading). However, these gloomy details of grim individuals should not detract from the success of the red kite, and all the charities which have tirelessly supported its comeback (particularly the Welsh Kite Trust and the RSPB ) and magical places like Gigrin Farm. So it’s a fantastic story for all those individuals who have supported the charities and the birds, by donating to local feeding stations or just keeping their eyes peeled and watching the skies.

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