Quiet pride over red kites

Last week we were in the south for a wedding near Rutland Water and to see family in Hampshire and Buckinghamshire.  Driving on motorways or back roads, we saw red kites as the most common raptor in the skies. The first of them showed up in the grey autumn skies as we headed for my son Roddy’s home in Amersham, with more on the way to Hampshire and north to Stamford. One morning we walked into Old Amersham through lovely beechwoods, kites overhead – even one patrolling the road where my son lives.

That’s what I like about kites: they are so easy to see and identify, and they respond so well to human contact. I find it marvellous that people can now feed red kites in their back gardens. The remains of a chicken leg here or an old sausage there make a welcome meal for this ultimate scavenger. I’m generally not keen on feeding birds and have always felt uneasy about the huge amounts of non-native food such as peanuts which are fed to birds in Britain. I’m not sure it’s in the long-term interest and I also think it obscures the appalling declines of common birds due to intensive agriculture, chemicals and modern life. But feeding red kites is different – they have fed beside humans right back to our earliest ancestors and to the Neanderthals, swooping down for morsels at campsites or after hunts of large mammals. It’s lovely to think they would once have fed on scraps of mammoth or woolly rhino being cut up by humans in ancient Britain. Nowadays there is such a rush to clean up dead animals in the countryside that the supply of carrion is really limited for birds like kites – we are, alas, too tidy and the ecosystem functions break down.

Whenever a kite floated over, I took quiet pride in the fact that 25 years ago, no kites bred in England or Scotland, and that I was fortunate to be one of the RSPB & Nature Conservancy team that restored the red kite. In 1989, after a good few years of opposition and delay, I flew to southern Sweden on the very first kite-collecting trip. Ornithological friends in Lund were so helpful to me and within a few days I had collected 12 young red kites to start what has become an incredibly successful project.  Magnus Sylven drove me over the bridge from Sweden to Denmark and onwards to a military base, where a RAF Nimrod patrol aircraft from Kinloss swooped in to take me back to northern Scotland with my precious cargo. Eight of the young kites were reared and released at a friend’s farm near our RSPB office near Inverness and the other four travelled south overnight to the Chilterns release area.

This was the start of one of the most successful ever reintroduction projects, with red kites now breeding from northern Scotland down through many parts of the UK to the south of England. That’s why I feel quiet pride whenever I see this distinctive-shaped raptor circling town and countryside. How I wish that we could get on and have golden eagles and sea eagles over such a big range. It’s perfectly easy to do ecologically but in the UK, social and political issues too often hamper bold ideals. But remember: it’s never ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘when’.