People visiting Dumfries and Galloway to see the region's red kites have contributed over £8.2m to the local economy, a new report has found.
Red kites were re-introduced to an area north of Castle Douglas starting in 2001, and the Galloway Kite Trail, which is a partnership project led by RSPB Scotland, was launched in 2003.
Between 2004 and 2015, the trail attracted over 100,000 visitors and supported, on average, the equivalent of 19 full-time jobs in the local area every year, with that figure rising to 21 jobs in 2015.
Calum Murray RSPB Scotland Community Liaison Officer, said: "The re-introduction of red kites in Dumfries and Galloway has been a massive conservation success story, and we now have over 100 pairs breeding across the region.
"But this survey clearly demonstrates how nature can bring economic benefits to communities as well. Tourists are visiting the Galloway Kite Trail from all over the UK, and many are coming here specifically to see our amazing red kites, as well as the other wildlife this region is rightly renowned for.
"It also demonstrates the fantastic support given to the trail by local businesses, and with many visitors making repeat visits, it's a good indication of the high standard of hospitality in the area as well."
The Galloway Kite Trail is a self-guided tour circling Loch Ken, taking visitors to some of the best locations to see kites, as well as promoting activities and services provided by local businesses.
An economic survey carried out annually by the RSPB between 2004 and 2015 found that visitors to the trail have spent an estimated £54.6m in Dumfries and Galloway, with £8.2m directly attributable to people visiting the area to see the kites.
The survey also found that almost 70% of respondents had travelled to the area from outside Scotland, with two thirds visiting Dumfries and Galloway for the first time.
Doug Wilson, VisitScotland Regional Director, said: "The Galloway Kite Trail has been a fabulous success story, in many more ways than one. As an ambitious nature conservation project, it has achieved outstanding results in terms of increasing red kite numbers, educating the public about these spectacular birds of prey, and raising awareness of the RSPB's superb efforts to protect them and their habitat and encourage breeding.
"The Kite Trail has also become an outstanding asset in Dumfries & Galloway's incredible portfolio of outdoors activity attractions, giving visitors another great reason to come to the beautiful Galloway Forest Park and explore the stunning Loch Ken area. Having attracted well over 100,000 visitors, the trail has delivered significant benefits to tourism within the region and the impact on our local economy has been tremendous."
Red kites were persecuted to extinction in Scotland in the 19th century but have now made a comeback in many parts of the country. These graceful birds, which are slightly longer-winged than buzzards, feed mainly on carrion and small mammals, and often come together in groups during the winter to roost.
Visitors to the Galloway Kite Trail can watch large numbers of kites at Bellymack Hill Farm near Laurieston, where food is provided for them each day.
Kites are now breeding in all three vice-counties in Dumfries & Galloway with a nesting pair discovered near Stranraer in Wigtownshire in 2016. A total of 105 breeding pairs were counted in surveys last summer, with at least 120 young fledged.
More details on the Galloway Kite Trail can be found at http://www.gallowaykitetrail.com/ or you can search for the project on Facebook.
· The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organizations. To find out more, visit www.rspb.org.uk.
· The Galloway Kite Trail (GKT) is a community based project, facilitated by RSPB Scotland, in partnership with Forestry Commission Scotland and Anne Johnstone (Bellymack Hill Farm). More information about the trail, red kites and events can be found at www.gallowaykitetrail.com.
· Since 2004, 1800 questionnaires have been completed by parties visiting the GKT feeding station and other service providers.
· In total, since the GKT was launched, more than £54.6m been spent in Dumfries and Galloway (D&G) by visitors to the trail, with £8.2m directly attributed to visitors coming to the area specifically to see the red kites. This is generating on average 19 full time equivalent jobs every year.
· The question 'Did the Galloway Kite Trail (or Galloway's red kites) influence your decision to visit Dumfries and Galloway?' was added to the survey in 2012 to help determine economic impact of the GKT using standard calculation methods. Between 2013 and 2015, more than half of responses showed that the GKT was a deciding factor in people's decisions to visit D&G.
· These economic impacts illustrate only one aspect of the varied benefits offered by the GKT to the local community. The full range of benefits involves health, educational, and cultural benefits that are much harder to quantify.
· The trail is part of the RSPB's A Date With Nature initiative. To find out more, visit www.rspb.org.uk/datewithnature.
· The Galloway Kite Trail is open all year round with the daily feed taking place at Bellymack Hill Farm - kite feeding station at 2pm. More information can be found at www.bellymackhillfarm.co.uk.