Which birds are threatened?
23 January 2008
These magnificent birds face some relentless enemies. But we have a wonderful opportunity to secure their future in our skies. And thanks to people like you, our supporters who care about birds and wildlife, we are already succeeding in bringing these birds back.
Red kites – a glorious success
The story of the red kite in the UK is heart-warming, and astonishing. The bird seemed doomed. By the beginning of the Second World War, just ten pairs were clinging on in the steep valleys of mid Wales. These red kites were carefully guarded by volunteers and landowners, who protected them from egg collectors.
Even in the 1980s, it was a rare privilege to watch red kites silhouetted against wind-cleansed skies, using their distinctive forked tails to help them ride the wind, or quickly sideslip after a morsel of food.
At one time these birds were common and widespread – indeed, the word kite was used to refer to any kind of bird of prey. Red kites scavenged the streets of Shakespeare’s London, snatching garments from clotheslines and hedges to adorn their nests. But shooting, nest destruction and poisoning drove them to the edge of extinction. That little group of birds in mid Wales was all that remained.
A brilliant solution
Welsh kites managed to raise a small number of young each year, and the population increased very slowly with intense protection. However, the slow rate of increase indicated it would be many decades before red kites might expand back into other parts of the UK.
We knew this tiny group of birds was extremely vulnerable. Only later, with DNA testing, did we discover how terribly close to the brink they had been: at one point every single surviving Welsh red kite could be traced back to a single breeding female.
The solution to this problem was daringly innovative. We chose to bring birds from healthy European populations to try to establish red kite breeding populations outside their Welsh heartlands. We were determined, if possible, to see their numbers recover across the UK. One of the first projects was in the Chilterns, and this has proved so successful that within 18 years of the start of the project there are now over 300 breeding pairs of red kites flourishing in Southern England.
Building on this success, the re-introduction programme was accelerated. Breeding populations are being established in other parts of the UK: in Northamptonshire, in Yorkshire and near Gateshead – and around Inverness, Stirling, Dumfries and Galloway. Listed like that, it sounds easy. But every project presented its own particular challenges, and as the first chicks of each project fledged and flew, the RSPB and the people we worked closely with breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Many of the birds are wing-tagged so that individuals can be recognised at a distance. Thanks to this, we know that red kites from different breeding areas are now mixing with one another. We are now looking to expand the programme further, and hoping to bring red kites back to Northern Ireland, and to Aberdeenshire.
Your donation today will help us extend and sustain our re-introduction work across the UK.
The threat of poison
The indiscriminate and illegal use of poisoned bait in the countryside, however, is a real threat to these birds. Being natural scavengers, red kites take poisoned baits all too readily. This activity was banned, by law, in 1911 – yes, almost a century ago. Yet wildlife criminals continue to abuse pesticides and are causing huge damage to vulnerable wildlife, as well as putting people, pets and livestock at risk.
It's painful to think that these wonderful birds are being killed because of the illegal actions of some people. Following the red kite re-introduction project in North Scotland, we were devastated to discover that 38% of the birds born from this fledgling population have been poisoned, and a further 9% have died because of other illegal activity.
It is crimes like these that the RSPB’s Investigations Unit helps the police to tackle. Your donation today will help us to protect all the UK’s vulnerable birds of prey.
How you can help
Persecution is still causing the deaths of hundreds of birds of prey every year. A donation to our appeal will help us put these awe-inspiring birds back in the skies where they belong.
White-tailed eagles - the impossible dream comes true
Unlike the red kite, which at least hung on in tiny numbers, the white-tailed eagle was completely exterminated as a breeding bird in the UK.
This eagle is a truly awesome sight – its wing span of almost 8 ft being even larger than the golden eagle’s. And look at that powerful hooked bill – you’d think this bird had nothing to fear. Yet human beings were able to render it extinct in the UK. The last one, a forlorn and mateless female, was shot in Shetland in the year 1918.
But now, a hundred years later, you can see these mighty eagles back on the west coast of Scotland. Working closely with Scottish Natural Heritage we have transported birds from Norway and released them into the wild.
There are now 36 breeding pairs in Scotland. The recovery is slow, since young white-tailed eagles take several years before they breed, but the trend is upward, and encouraging.
Our delight in this, even, must be tinged with a little sadness. Since the project began, at least seven white-tailed eagles have been killed illegally, and four clutches of eggs stolen. But we have great hopes that the high level of interest shown by visitors, and the extent to which local communities have taken these magnificent birds to their hearts, promise a healthy future for the UK’s white-tailed eagles. Working tirelessly with land managers, volunteers and police, that is our goal.
Hen harriers - a hard task ahead
24 January 2007
Given the recovery of many birds of prey – not only red kites and white-tailed eagles, but ospreys, marsh harriers and peregrine falcons too – it’s outrageous that hen harriers do not share this good fortune. The population of this bird is far below the number it should be.
If you are lucky enough to see hen harriers during the breeding season, it is likely to be in a landscape chequered with heather and rough grassland. The male bird is particularly impressive, with elegant pale grey plumage and dramatic black tips to the long wings. Drifting effortlessly across hillside and moor, searching for voles and small birds to bring to the sitting female, he is a magical sight.
The large areas of moorland managed for grouse shooting make an ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife, and are great places for many birds. Sadly, the hen harrier is not one of them. Our research has shown that female hen harrier survival is twice as good on moors which are not managed for driven grouse as on those that are. And they rear far fewer young on moors with grouse shoots.
Working with raptor study groups and other volunteers, we have been monitoring their fortunes for many years. RSPB investigations have shown that in some cases hen harriers have been deliberately shot, and their eggs and chicks trampled on, to exterminate them.
We have to spend thousands of pounds a year guarding the hen harriers in the RSPB’s own nature reserve at Geltsdale from this kind of persecution. But it’s the only way we can be sure of protecting them – and this is one of the few places in England where hen harriers breed successfully. In their other English stronghold, Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland, sympathetic land managers and the RSPB have worked for 25 years to ensure their protection.
These birds do, of course, eat red grouse. Yet intensive study has shown that the long-term cause of falling red grouse numbers on moorland is not birds of prey, but overgrazing by sheep and deer, and forestry plantations. We know this is a complex issue, but illegally persecuting hen harriers can never be an acceptable solution. We are committed to working positively with enlightened landowners to secure better protection and habitat management for grouse and harriers.
The habitat lesson
It would be wonderful if the fortunes of the hen harrier could be revived as spectacularly as those of its close relation the marsh harrier. By 1971 there was only a single pair of marsh harriers breeding in the UK, on the RSPB’s Minsmere nature reserve.
Like other birds dependent on reedbeds for their existence, this bird of prey’s fortunes reflected the disappearance of this special habitat. The RSPB has been at the forefront of improving and recreating reedbeds in the UK, and as a result in 2005 more than 800 young marsh harriers fledged within our shores. It’s a perfect demonstration of the fact that the recovery of bird of prey populations must go hand in hand with the restoration of a healthy ecosystem to sustain them.
Can we hold out the same hopes for the hen harrier as for the marsh harrier? The only way it can happen is if the RSPB continues to work tirelessly to provide accurate scientific evidence, new and restored habitats, and to fight for the legal protection that all these magnificent birds of prey need.