A recent trip to Oxford by car revealed just how well the English Red Kite population is now doing. Persecuted to extinction within the country by the end of the 19th Century, the species hung on only in Wales and the current population stems from a great deal of high profile conservation work.
For me, as a child with a growing interest in birds and birdwatching, the Red Kite remained a tantalising bird, wished for but never seen on holidays to Wales (we were in the wrong part of Wales). Even though most of the persecution that had previously harried the species had ended, the conditions in Wales were such that the population found it difficult to prosper or to recolonise former haunts. It was for this reason that a decision was taken to reintroduce the Red Kite to England and Scotland, using birds from elsewhere in Europe (Spanish birds for the English releases and Swedish and German birds for the Scottish ones). These began in 1989, with young birds released to a site in the Chilterns, operated under carefully supervised and controlled conditions. Over the next five years 93 young were released from this site and the offspring from these birds provide the backbone of the population that can now be found from Oxford south to Didcot and beyond. Such has been the success of the reintroduction that you cannot drive up the M40 in daylight hours without seeing a good number of kites on your journey. The other day we saw three dozen, with 11 birds in the same field of view at one point.
Other releases have followed, including one in Central England and one in Yorkshire. These populations are also doing well and the species is becoming an increasingly common sight across much of the country. I now see Red Kites fairly regularly in Norfolk and at least one bird has been haunting the same bit of the Brecks over recent weeks, perhaps an early indication that we will soon have them established here as a breeding species.
Nesting kites suffer from the unwelcome attentions of egg collectors and birds are sometimes also targeted by a minority of landowners who, incorrectly, assume them to be a threat to game or livestock interests. The kite is an opportunist, taking advantage of whatever source of food is available locally and is happy to scavenge scraps. In parts of Didcot the birds are attracted to bird tables where some householders provide meat scraps specifically for the kites. Now, there’s a bird that would make an impressive entrance at your garden feeding station. It’s certainly good to see them on the wing, a sign that our attitudes are changing for the good.