Finding Out About… Red Kites

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces his next in a series of informative articles.

Image: Michael Brace, CC BY 2.0

A Red Kite wheels over our back garden.  So, what is unusual about that I hear you say?  Let me tell you a story, which I will call “The Kite’s Tale”.

During the Middle Ages the Red Kite was valued in the City of London, as it fed on human waste, refuse and dead animals. At this time it was a grave offence to kill a Kite or Raven in the city, but soon increased sanitation and metalled roads meant the Kite had no place as a refuse collector, the hand of man turned against all birds of prey and so over 400 years of raptor destruction across Britain began. More gamekeepers and later egg collecting Victorians also had a passion for mounted specimens, Birds would be taken from the nest, hand reared, then killed so that a specimen in a glass case could be produced.

County by county Kites were exterminated from the British countryside.  However, some Kites on landed gentry estates were actually encouraged as they were quarry species for Goshawks.

This was a very bad time for all birds of prey and by 1870 the last Kite bred in England, followed by about 1879 in Scotland.  The 1880 to 1902 series of bird protection Acts gave little protection (the fine for killing a Kite was £1), so except for a few isolated breeding records from Devon and Shropshire, it seemed that this once valued bird had gone from our skies for ever.

Wales faired little better, but against all odds, poisoning, egg collecting and shooting, just 3 pairs hung on by 1931 and the situation after the war saw the tiny population expand to 6 pairs, all in the hanging oak woodlands of Central Wales.  Both locally and nationally various groups were formed with the aim of protecting Kites, but most were ineffective due mainly due to the fact that some members of these groups were actually egg collectors or selling information as to the location of various nests!

The next set back was the aftermath of the bitterly cold 1962/3 winter, when only 3 pairs out of 13 nests raised young. A new problem was the rise in cases of myxomatosis which hit the rabbit population in Central Wales. Could this have been a key reason why so many eggs failed to hatch?

However, by the time I joined the RSPB staff in 1968, things did seem to be looking up. Reorganisation of local support groups, working now with the RSPB led to the success at last-it had been a long time coming; and in 1970, 24 nests were being protected, and in just 10 years later this had grown to 30 nests and 27 young fledged.

Red Kite by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0

1989 was a watershed year with 47 young fledged; the corner had been turned. Now, at last it was possible to show people kites away from the nest. I remember going to one public site where the farmer was feeding hundreds of Kites, Buzzards and Ravens each winter.  This was an amazing sight, good for membership recruitment as well!  The Welsh TB appointed the Red Kite as the Welsh national bird, and the successes in Wales pointed the way for the RSPB to launch other “Showing people birds” projects, which I was proud to have been involved with.

It was now time for the long-awaited English re-introduction to swing into action and in 1989-1993 period 93 young Kites, mainly from Sweden arrived in the UK and were housed in 2 secret locations in both England and Scotland.

The releases were a great success and were followed by more releases in Rockingham Forest and Harewood park during 1999-2000. This entire RSPB led programme can be rightly claimed to have been one of the most outstanding wildlife conservation projects of the century-in that in the year 2000 the entire UK Kite population was just 1600 pairs and 20 years later the estimated UK population was a staggering 4,400 pairs. How amazing is this! They have bred in Cambridgeshire since 2004 and gatherings of up to 50 birds can be seen just off the A1 at Sawtry.

But this is not the end of this remarkable story.

This late spring, early summer, hundreds of Kites – mainly young birds – have been reported in Southern England, from Devon to Kent, and I have recently been told that around 100 pairs are now breeding in Hampshire.  There seems to be no suggestion that any of these wandering flocks originate from mainland Europe as, unlike Black Kites, Red Kites seem not to like crossing water (interestingly the species is rare on the Isle of Wight). So, are all these birds from a very successful 2019 breeding season? Maybe they are looking for new feeding areas as perhaps there are less road kills this year?

So, as this tale is developing, when will we see the first Kites nesting on the reserve? It will be very soon, as they are nesting very close to us, just over the A1.

So, from the Middle ages to last ditch strugglers in Central Wales, we have come to be able to enjoy Kites from our living room window-how good is this!

Fact File

  • Status: resident
  • European population: about 45,00 and decreasing
  • 90% of all Red Kites breed in Europe, just a few in N. Africa
  • Habitat: lowland parks, farmland and mainly deciduous woodlands, hanging oak valleys in Central Wales
  • Have interbred with Black Kites (but rare)
  • Black Kites are the world’s most numerous Raptor but have never been proven to nest in Britain