The Remarkable Comeback Of The Red Kite In Cymru
Unlike many nations, the countries that make up the UK don’t have official national birds. Britain as a whole has twice voted for the robin, Northern Ireland unofficially selected the oystercatcher in 1981, the RSPB launched a campaign to have the golden eagle declared Scotland’s national bird, and in 2007 a poll chose the red kite as the national bird of Wales.
Today is St David’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales and although leeks and daffodils will be in abundance, we thought it would be nice to have a little bird celebration of our own in honour of the red kite.
Red kites have been residing in Wales for a long time. Bones dating back 120,000 years have been found in the caves of the Gower peninsula in South Wales along with the remains of straight-tusked elephants, hippopotamuses, cave bears, soft-nosed rhinoceroses, mammoths, bison, and lions. The English Channel did not exist back then, Britain was part of mainland Europe, South Wales was connected to Devon and Somerset by a thickly wooded valley, and humans were yet to arrive.
A penny for a kite
During the Medieval Era red kites were familiar birds throughout Great Britain, prized as scavengers and used for cleaning the streets. They were protected by a royal decree and it was a capital offence to kill a red kite. However, by the 1500s they were so widespread that farmers considered them vermin, wrongly accusing them of killing lambs, and began poisoning them.
The Preservation of Grain Act passed in 1532 by Henry VIII as a result of poor harvests and a growing population, and strengthened by Elizabeth I in 1566 declared war on wildlife with every man, woman, and child compelled to kill as many animals as possible that appeared on an official list of vermin. Bounties were paid and each parish had to keep a record of what has been despatched.
Crows, badgers, and foxes were all on the list as were Bullfynches, Sparrows and Hedgehogs, and one penney was offered for the head of every Woodwall (Woodpecker), Pye (Magpie), Jaye, Raven or Kyte.
As red kites became rarer, they became more and more sought after by taxidermists and egg collectors and they were virtually persecuted to extinction in the UK by the early 20th century. None were to be found in England or Scotland and just two breeding pairs remained in central Wales in the old oak woods of remote valleys that had been left virtually undisturbed.
Slow but steady progress
In 1903 the first Kite Committee was formed by Professor J. H. Salter, a lecturer in botany at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, along with a number of other distinguished names including Edmund Meade-Waldo, Walter Rothschild, and J. Lewis Bonhote. Prof. Salter’s aim was to enlist support for the protection of red kites with funding and boots on the ground.
By 1905 their conservation efforts had increased the red kite population in Wales to ten pairs which produced eight young in 1912. Things did not progress well though in the next decade due to egg-collecting, shooting, and timber-felling and in 1922 just three pairs were accounted for.
At this point the RSPB became involved and began making payments to reward farmers and local watchers. Five young were reared in 1929 but in the early 1930s it was found that eggs were being taken and sold by some of the watchers who were meant to be conserving the birds.
In 1938 Miss D. T. Raikes was appointed by the RSPB and given a grant for expenses. She founded an independent organisation with the aim of raising much larger sums of money, but had little success with just one chick reared in each of the years of 1938 and 1939.
After the war the arrangements were passed to Captain and Mrs H. R. H. Vaughan who persuaded the West Wales Field Society to set up a sub-committee and a new Kite Committee was formed.
In 1954 twelve young red kites were successfully reared but then the rabbit population was struck down by myxomatosis which devastated their main food supply and only one bird fledged in 1955.
In 1958 another committee was formed under the chairmanship of Captain Vaughan and the RSPB took on the responsibility of special measures and finances. Progress was slow and over the next 15 years the conservation efforts faced many setbacks, including adverse weather, pesticides, egg-collecting, nest disturbance, and shooting. By 1972 26 pairs produced a total of 19 young.
For some time it was thought that the lack of genetic diversity was causing the low reproductive rate, but as the population started to spread to better land at lower altitudes it became clear that it was almost entirely due to poor habitat.
The rate of chick production remained low and it became apparent that red kites were unlikely to be able spread out of Wales into their old ranges of England and Scotland. In 1986 the RSPB and Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) started to explore the feasibility of reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland.
In order to do so they would have to meet the conditions of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in full. These included good historical evidence of former natural occurrence, a clear understanding of why the species disappeared, the factors that caused extinction had been rectified, and suitable habitat is present to support the new population.
The birds chosen for the reintroduction would need to be as genetically close as possible to the former indigenous population, and the removal of birds does not have a negative impact on the population from which the birds are taken.
The proposal for reintroducing the red kite satisfied all the criteria and in 1989 6 Swedish birds were released at a site in Scotland, and 1 Welsh and 4 Swedish birds were released at a site in Buckinghamshire.
Over the next 5 years a total of 93 birds from Spain and Sweden were released at both sites and the first successful breeding occurred in 1992.
Further reintroductions across the UK have seen the population numbers swell and there are now 1,600 pairs of red kites found across the UK with a conservation status of Green. In 1999 the BTO voted the red kite the Bird of the Century.
Up, up and away
In Wales in the winter of 1992/93 the first Red Kite Feeding Centre was officially recognised at a farm in Rhayader, Mid Wales. Gigrin Farm is an upland sheep farm of about 200 acres with views across the Wye and Elan valleys.
After the RSPB noticed large numbers of red kites visiting the farm to take rabbits left out by the owner, they asked whether the farm could be opened to the public. This would not only help young red kites who struggle to find food over the winter months but also encourage people away from nesting sites.
The farm took on the challenge and it is now better known for its red kites than anything else with up to 600 arriving each day for food. Gigrin Farm is happy to report that despite what Medieval farmers believed, red kites do not look at their lambs with anything but curiosity.
In Wales The Welsh Kite Trust was set up in 1996 to ensure that the success of the red kite continues and Gigrin Farm works with the trust to allow red kites that have fallen ill or been injured to have a safe place to recuperate.
Other red kite feeding stations have been set up across the UK helping fuel the red kite revival by providing them with an alternative food source to fallen livestock which now by law must be incinerated.
Based on how much suitable habitat is available for red kites and the density of the current populations it has been estimated that the UK could support 50,000 red kites, almost double the current world population. This figure may seem unlikely but this number has already been exceeded by the buzzard, another magnificent bird of prey that we almost lost at the beginning of the last century.