Red Kite

The History of Red Kites in Wales and the rest of the UK

I went down to the field earlier, hoping to get the chance to see Red Kites around the nest or engaging in courtship displays. It was fairly quiet, a single Kite was around and was flying in a large circle over the village and car park where a family were unloading their bicycles. I stayed for a while but didn’t hold much hope of seeing any activity. I expected the Kite to be preoccupied with the goings on in the car park rather than getting busy with any courtship or breeding. I drove back home and saw at least 4 other Red Kites and one flying directly above my house. This is a familiar bird to me and I recognise its individual voice. I know where it nests but it isn’t in a public place like the Kites I’ve been following so I smile to myself and wonder whether it will breed this year and keep me company with its mewling, whistling call over my garden through the summer.

My husband and I moved to the county of Dyfed in 1994. Mal had enrolled at Lampeter University as a mature student and we rented a small cottage in the middle of nowhere with no electricity at all – not even a generator, and our water came from a spring. The only thing I would miss if we were to return to that way of living is the internet and the ability to research any topic I wish without having to leave my house.

They were wonderful days and we spent our time between the University, work and riding around on our old Japanese motorcycles. It was in 1995 that we saw our very first Red Kite as we were riding along on our motorbikes down the back lanes from Llyn Brianne. I love the Cambrian Mountains and the fact that they are so peaceful and not busy with tourists. A Kite flew alongside us as we rode along the mountain road. I’ve always wanted to be able to fly and I imagine that motorcycling is as close as you are going to get without leaving the ground. For a while, the bird and the two of us on our bikes travelled together at the same speed, I cannot describe the feeling other than a total connectedness and oneness with the planet. Robert Pirsig in his famous book ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ written back in 1974 describes perfectly how when you travel in a car you are an observer looking at the world through a screen, much like watching television. But on a motorcycle you are part of the scene and the whole experience is never removed from your immediate consciousness.

Anyway, that was a very special moment that still brings me a whoosh of pleasure, not just for the experience of ’flying’ with a Red Kite but because I had never seen one before as they were extremely rare back then.

Back in the day mucking about on a friend’s farm.. When I used to ride over the mountain road from Lampeter, I would sometimes remove my helmet. Farmers would smile and wave and no one seem bothered about my law breaking…or personal safety!

The Gower Peninsula has some wonderful archaeology and Red Kite bones dating back 120,000 years have been found in caves there along with elephants, hippopotamus, mammoth, rhinoceros, cave bear and lion. This was before people had come to Britain and Wales was joined to Somerset and Devon by a wooded valley  rather than the Bristol Channel.

The Red Kite was clearly a common bird and was described in the writings of Chaucer in the Knight’s Tale and later in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The king’s daughter Goneril is described as a ‘detested kite’ and he also wrote “when the kite builds, look to your lesser linen” in reference to them stealing washing hung out to dry in the nesting season. These days, Kites still adorn their nests with people’s washing – including underwear, but also crisp packets and other items of litter as well as toys or any other plastic item that takes their fancy.

In the 15th century, James the second of Scotland decreed that the Kite should be killed wherever possible, but it remained protected in England and Wales along with the Raven for another hundred years, as it served the purpose of cleaning the streets of carrion. 

Red Kite numbers appear to have been getting out of hand by the 16th century and a law was passed that placed a bounty on the head of many different species of birds including ‘one penney for the head of every kyte’. The name ‘Kite’ comes from the Old English ‘cyta’ (unknown origin) and by the early 15th century was written as ‘kyte’ and then later on ‘Kite’. The use of the word ‘kite’ to refer to the toy that is flown on the end of a string was first recorded in the 17th century. As the bird became more rare, its eggs became more attractive to egg collectors that could make good money from selling them. This added to the Red Kite’s decline.

At the end of the nineteenth century, there was only around a dozen Red Kites in Britain, and these were mainly found in central Wales. A conservation programme was established in 1903 to try and protect the Red Kites and this is now the longest continuing conservation programme in the world. Dr J.H. Salter from Aberystwyth University persuaded the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up a ‘Kite Committee’ to protect the few remaining pairs found in the upper Tywi Valley and the RSPB got involved too a couple of years later in 1905. I dream that the bird I rode alongside near Llyn Brianne was a descendent of one of these Welsh  birds and not one of the introduced Red Kites. Figures had dropped considerably by the 1930s and some quote that there was only a single breeding pair of Kites in Wales at this time, whereas other figures are more hopeful and quote 20 birds in total. Whatever the figures, the Red Kite had become extremely rare in Wales and extinct in England and Scotland. Genetic tests have shown that the entire Welsh population of Red Kites has descended from just one, single female. I do hope “my” Red Kite was one of them.

The population of Red Kites did not exceed 20 pairs until the 1960’s, when it started to slowly increase. Recovery was slow because the birds inhabited an area where the climate conditions and food availability was poor and this depressed breeding success and prevented the Kites from expanding their range. Although Red Kites were a protected species there were up against a number of factors:  Illegal poisoning by gamekeepers and landowners who mistakenly believed that Red Kites predated their livestock; egg collecting was a popular money making business and hobby; and shooting of adults for taxidermy were severely affecting the population. 

The 1950s rabbit myxomatosis outbreak devastated a main food supply of the Kites. This was followed by poor breeding success in the early 1960s, thought to be caused by effects of organochlorine pesticides. I will have to quote another of my favourite books here too: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – a book left to me by my Grandfather and given to me by a friend of his after his death. This book inspired and motivated me and fed into my intense passion for the natural world. Sadly this treasured copy was lost along the way but I was given another copy recently by a good friend and look forward to rereading it, but also feel disappointed in the human race for having learned so little despite intelligent people pointing out the facts of what we are doing to damage our planet. There are many parallels with the Climate Crisis and the awareness raising that another strong, intelligent woman, Greta Thunberg is doing 50+ years later. 

As the population of Red Kites increased and spread out to more productive land at lower altitudes it became apparent that the difficulties they were facing in successfully reproducing were almost entirely due to poor habitat conditions. By the mid-1990s there were more than 100 breeding pairs in Wales, and 350-400 pairs by 2003.

The Welsh population of Red Kites appeared to be unable to spread out of Wales to recolonise its former range across the UK because they were unable to produce enough chicks. The re-introduction programme run by the RSPB, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, amongst others, started in 1989 and helped to establish Red Kites in several areas of England and Scotland.

In 1989, six Swedish birds were released at a site in north Scotland and four Swedish and one Welsh bird in Buckinghamshire. Altogether, 93 birds of Swedish and Spanish origin were released at each of the sites, with the last birds released in 1993 in Scotland and 1994 in England. The first successful breeding was recorded at both sites in 1992, and two years later Kites reared in the wild themselves reared young for the first time. Successful breeding populations have become established in both locations.

Throughout the mid-1990s, Red Kites were released and successfully bred in the East Midlands and central Scotland (these Scottish reintroduced birds were from Germany). Further releases took place in Dumfries and Galloway and the Derwent Valley in the hope that the English and Scottish populations would join up.

By 2011 the RSPB no longer counted the number of breeding pairs in the UK on an annual basis because there were so many. This is a fantastic success story and proves that scientific, consistent, committed conservation work can pay off. It is unusual for me to go out without seeing a Red Kite now, and their distinct call; their elegant flight; beautiful colours and instantly recognisable forked tail are a familiar sight in the skies above Carmarthenshire.

Bwlch Nant Yr Arian

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