Recently I saw a red kite flying over the road near Rufforth and this prompted me to explore the history of this bird of prey. Red kites are a magnificent part of British wildlife and an increasingly common sight in many areas across the country. It’s hard to comprehend that the species was once driven to near extinction in Britain. In this blog we’ll explore the causes of the decline and how the population recovered.
Red kites are birds of mixed and open countryside. Despite their large size, with wing spans around 1.5 m, compared with other birds of prey they are not exactly voracious predators, feeding mostly on carrion, but also taking rabbits, chicks and invertebrates. Red kites are a great bird to identify, as they have long thin wings, and a forked tail which is usually visible if you get a long enough look. The tail can twist from side to side, acting a bit like an aerial rudder. Red kites also spend a lot of their time gliding.
Their reputation in Victorian England was much maligned! The belief that they attacked young livestock and gamebirds led to widespread persecution during the 19th century. By 1900, only five pairs remained, confined to Wales. Even with protection, population growth floundered, and so the RSPB formulated a reintroduction plan in 1989.
Red kite chicks were brought over from Spain and Sweden. 93 were released into the wild in the Chilterns of southern England and the Black Isle, in Scotland. Both populations bred successfully in 1992. More releases followed in the East Midlands, central Scotland and Yorkshire.
Understandably, the RSPB carefully monitored the growing kite population, by surveying, complemented with ringing and tagging. The rings and tags distinguished a bird’s place and year of hatching, allowing movements and breeding success of adult birds to be recorded.
The number of breeding pairs in the UK was estimated to be 1600 by the year 2008. Regrettably, the population increase has not been uniform, with the Black Isle population in Scotland being hampered by illegal persecution.
For many years after the reintroductions, the RSPB continued to closely monitor the red kite population, checking in on all the nest sites they could find, and tagging and ringing any new chicks. When I worked for the RSPB I helped with this procedure and even got to hold the kites. They feel like fluffy hot water bottles that weigh almost nothing at all!
How will Britain’s red kites fair in the future? Well, the reintroduction, apart from a few blips, has been an overwhelming success. Red kites have been downgraded from Amber to Green on the ‘Birds of Conservation Concern’ list, a huge study published in 2015. It’s estimated the country could eventually support 10,000 breeding pairs.
The Yorkshire red kite re-introductions were part of this success. They were carried out at Harewood house – and now this area, and the city of Leeds, are strongholds for the kites. In my experience red kites are a rare sight in York, but in recent years I’ve seen them around the eastern side of the ring road, in the Woodthorpe-Rufforth area and also the Skelton-Shipton area. I believe these kites are evidence that the Leeds population is extending northwards, and I hope that one day red kites will breed in York, and be a regular feature. If you are out for a walk in woodland, you will often hear the kites before you see them. They have a high-pitched squealing noise, a recording of which can be played on the RSPB website.
While kite in Yorkshire are doing well, it’s worth pointing out that they are still subject to illegal persecution.
This red kite (pictured above) was shot, but fortunately was able to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. If you’d like to learn more about bird of prey persecution in Yorkshire, please check out this video I made for Ryedale Rehab centre, but be warned, it does contain images of injured animals and is potentially upsetting.
If you witness any wildlife crime, the RSPB has some very clear guidance on who to contact to report the incident. Click here to find out more.
To end, let’s celebrate the positives. Too much of wildlife conservation can be doom and gloom, but the UK’s red kites provides us with a success story that we can all enjoy!
To learn more about red kites in Yorkshire, or report a sighting, you can visit the Yorkshire Red Kite website.
This spotlight blog was written by Phil Taylor from Green Underwing Wildlife Education who also leads our Discover Nature Ecotherapy sessions. You can find out more about Green Underwing by clicking here or follow on twitter using @greenunderwing. This blog has been shared on Phil’s own website previously and is posted here with his express permission.
All the photos in this blog are owned by Phil Taylor unless stated otherwise.