21 September 2005
Image: Steve Round
Red kites were almost extinct in the UK by the early 1900s, reduced to very low numbers in Wales. In the last two decades, they have been re-introduced to England and Scotland, with magnificent results.
Red kites were persecuted to extinction throughout the UK, with the exception of Wales, during the 19th century. In Wales, during the 20th century, the small population was carefully protected, and red kites have slowly increased in numbers and range since the Second World War.
In 1989 a re-introduction programme was set up by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council because of concerns about the slow rate of population expansion in Wales, and the improbability of natural re-colonisation of other suitable parts of the UK by red kites from Wales or the continent.
In England, red kites have been re-introduced to four areas since 1989: the Chilterns, East Midlands, Yorkshire and north-east England. The first birds were brought from Spain, but as the Chilterns population grew quickly it produced enough young birds to donate small numbers to establish populations in the other areas. The final project, Northern Kites near Gateshead in north-east England, began in 2004.
Red kites were brought from Sweden and Germany to North and Central Scotland, and breeding populations have been successfully established. In Dumfries & Galloway, 100 red kites were brought from the Chilterns and North Scotland, and breeding is now becoming regular.
Image: The RSPB
The RSPB, together with its partners, has worked hard to ensure local support for the red kite reintroduction projects.
It has been important to reassure landowners and gamekeepers that red kites pose no risk to game shooting interests or livestock. Most have seen this for themselves, and are now proud to have kites nesting on their land, protecting them and monitoring their success.
Christopher Ussher, resident agent at the Harewood Estate, was quoted in Shooting Times and Country Magazine as saying: ‘Initially we received comments from neighbours about how the birds would affect the estate, but there is no conflict at all.’
Support from local residents has been important too and we have often started by visiting schools, inviting children to see kites being released and helping them with associated project work. The children find out that kites are exciting and spectacular birds and share their enthusiasm with family and friends.
Local economies have benefited from ‘kite country’ green tourism initiatives. Touring red kite trails have been set up, and enterprising farmers have set up kite-feeding stations which draw high numbers of visitors.
The prospects for red kites in the UK are extremely good, with increasing numbers at most of the release locations. The population in Wales has increased to over 400 pairs and populations in most of the release areas in Scotland and England are already self-sustaining. This is particularly welcome as the European red kite population has declined dramatically and is now listed as globally-threatened by the IUCN/BirdLife International.
In the UK, only in northern Scotland do we have serious concerns about the future. Numerous incidents of illegal poisoning appear to be preventing the population from increasing.
The same number of red kites were released in the Chilterns as in North Scotland between 1989 and 1993, but while the Chilterns population has grown to over 200 pairs, the north Scottish population has remained at only 35 pairs. The population produces lots of young, but fewer survive and so the population has stopped growing.
Here we will be moving a small number of birds over the next five years to a new area to the north-east to hasten recovery of red kites in that area. We believe persecution is the main limiting factor in north Scotland, and we are carrying out a persecution study, using radiotelemetry to identify persecution hot spots. We are working with Police wildlife crime officers to track down those responsible.
The original re-introduction projects were developed by the RSPB, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage.
The Gateshead release project ‘Northern Kites’ is run by the RSPB and English Nature. Other partners are Gateshead Council, Northumbrian Water, National Trust and Forestry Commission England, and we have funding support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and SITA Environmental Trust.
In the English Midlands, a public viewing scheme is run at a Forestry Commission England visitor centre. In the Chilterns red kites are monitored by the Southern England Kite Group, who assist in translocation of birds for other re-introduction areas. In Yorkshire, the release project was a collaboration between the RSPB, EN, Harewood Estate and Yorkshire Water.
In Scotland, reintroduction projects have been carried out in collaboration with SNH, Forestry Commission Scotland and the Scottish Raptor Study Groups. We have also received funding for kite work from LEADER+, and Making Tracks.
In Wales, we are grateful to the Welsh Kite Trust who monitor many of the nesting pairs.
Get close to red kites at one of our Date with Nature events across the UK
See red kites in the wild