A triumph for conservation
The incredible comeback of red kites has to be one of the UK’s biggest conservation success stories.
In the 1930s, we had just a handful of pairs, all of them in Wales. But now, there are an estimated 46,000 breeding pairs from northern Scotland right down to southern England. So, how did things get quite so bad for our red kites, and what brought about their amazing reversal of fortunes?
Look to lesser linen
We’re not used to seeing birds of prey in our cities, but in Shakespeare’s time, red kites would scavenge for scraps of meat and the plentiful rodents on London’s streets. They were so common, in fact, that Shakespeare refers to London as a “city of kites and crows”, and warns "When the kite builds, look to lesser linen" in reference to the kites’ rather odd habit of lining their nests with unusual objects, including underwear!
But as attitudes towards birds of prey changed, kites became the target of persecution, particularly by gamekeepers keen to keep game numbers high, Victorian egg and skin collectors, and some farmers seeking to protect their livestock. In the case of the kites, however, concerns about predation were largely unfounded.
Far from being ferocious predators, kites prefer scavenging carrion or hunting for worms. It’s what they’re designed to do. Their big wings are ideal for travelling long distances, using their effortless soaring flight in search of an easy meal, and their weak feet don’t have the strength to kill prey much bigger than a young rabbit.
Sadly, that didn’t stop the persecution, and red kites were almost driven to extinction in England by the end of the 19th century. A few pairs managed to cling on in Wales, but genetic fingerprinting revealed that the population could all be traced back to a single female. Despite huge conservation efforts by RSPB staff, Welsh red kite volunteers and local farmers, the population didn’t increase much in size or range.
Red kite rescue
Together with our partners, the RSPB began the first red kite re-introduction programme in 1989. Young kites were taken from nests in Sweden and Wales, reared and then released on the Black Isle in Scotland and in the Chiltern Hills in England, with startling success. Breeding was recorded at both sites in 1992, and just two years later kites reared in the wild reared their own young for the first time.
These successes paved the way for more releases in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, all with great results. Between 1995 and 2015, the population of red kites in the UK soared by a remarkable 1,231% and it’s thought that the UK is now home to around 15% of the world’s breeding red kites.
It’s one of the biggest conservation successes of the 20th century and clear proof that we can turn the fortunes of species around.
The return of the red kite
Unlike most birds of prey, red kites are very sociable birds. In the winter, they come together in communal roosts, and even during the breeding season, they’re quite tolerant of each other. When they spot a good source of food, they don’t keep it to themselves, but circle in the air, calling in their distinctive high-pitched whistles. They also remember where they’ve found food, and will return to see if their luck’s still in.
Because of this, in the early stages of the re-introduction, several “feeding stations” were launched, helping the public to get amazing views of the kites, as this video shows. Kites play an important role in attracting wildlife tourism, contributing millions of pounds to the local economy in some areas.
Still under threat
Despite the successes of the red kite re-introduction projects, their return hasn’t been without problems. As scavengers, red kites are very vulnerable to poisoning, whether deliberate or as a result of eating poisoned rodents, and they are also sometimes shot, despite being protected by law. Even during the Covid-19 lockdown the RSPB’s Investigations Team has received reports of red kites that have been illegally killed across the UK – one, found near Leeds, had 12 shotgun pellets in its body.
The future for red kites
People may have brought red kites to the brink of extinction in the UK, but people also brought them back again. Dedicated individuals have cared for them, watched over them and studied them, allowing them to flourish into a stable and growing population – a real triumph for conservation.
We will do all we can to ensure that red kites are here to stay.