Saturday, 25 June 2011

Keeping things in proportion

It seems that many of us still have a problem with birds of prey; not a real, material, in your face kind of problem, but one of perception. The latest illustration of this came in the form of a letter from Hampshire, accompanied by a newspaper clipping with a stunning picture of a Red Kite and a headline that ran ‘School bans playing outside after Red Kite attacks on pupils.’ It appeared, so the rather brief article implied, that school children were ‘being ambushed by the birds of prey.’ The writer of the accompanying letter had clearly taken this article at face value and was concerned that the reintroduction of large birds of prey was putting the lives of small children at risk.

In Medieval times the Red Kite would have been a common sight over much of the English countryside, the bird also making a living in some of our larger cities where it could scavenge from the detritus of city life. As sanitation improved so the kites were lost from the built environment. Soon after they began to decline in rural areas, as levels of persecution increased alongside a growth in the number of shooting estates. The species was lost from England in the 1860s but did (just) cling on in Wales. With levels of persecution much reduced over recent decades, the decision was taken to reintroduce the species to its former haunts and work began in 1989 to make this possible. Today, the Red Kite population is in recovery and growing numbers have seen greater interaction with people.

The Red Kite is primarily a scavenger, feeding on carrion, but it will take small mammals, amphibians, small birds and various invertebrates. It is not, however, a threat to small children! In parts of the kite’s now expanding range, householders and landowners deliberately provide them with food; one kite feeding station in Wales is a huge tourist attraction. This something that could explain why the kites might have been attracted to playground scraps, perhaps with the school children even attempting to feed them by hand, throwing or holding up food.

Whatever the reason behind the incident, it underlines an innate fear that many of us still have of wild creatures. Being frightened might seem surprising, particularly given that we don’t have any large or dangerous predators left in Britain, but I suspect it is really a fear of the unknown. If you don’t know that a Red Kite is primarily a scavenger, that it eats lots of worms and is not going to steal your child, then you may be unable to shake off that fear. Maybe things will improve as more people get used to seeing the kites around.

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