By Charlotte Owen, WildCall Officer
The Red Kite is an increasingly familiar sight in the skies above Sussex, soaring effortlessly over the South Downs on an almost-six-foot wingspan. These magnificent birds are still outnumbered by their Buzzard brethren but they share a similar story, both bouncing back from the brink of extinction.
Just 50 years ago there were only a handful of Red Kites left, clinging on to their last remaining stronghold deep in the wilds of Wales.Their location was a closely guarded secret, both on paper and in person. The 1968-72 breeding bird maps deliberately showed a vague, red circle somewhere over mid-Wales, and guards were set on the ground to protect the precious nests from egg collectors and bounty hunters. But how did this sad situation arise?
Just a few centuries earlier, Red Kites were as common as pigeons and equally urban, even in London – Shakespeare’s ‘city of kites and crows’. As scavengers, they picked the filthy streets clean and their highly-valued services earned protection by royal decree. But attitudes shifted over time and the Red Kite fell from grace when it was mistakenly viewed as a threat to livestock and gamebirds. With a bounty on its head, the species was driven to extinction in England and Scotland by 1879. Rather belated conservation efforts began in 1903 but by then every surviving bird was descended from a single Welsh female. With the population in such a severe genetic bottleneck and struggling against bad weather, lack of food due to myxomatosis in rabbits and eggshell thinning caused by organochlorine pesticides, the odds were stacked against their natural recovery.
Decisive action was needed and the first reintroductions were made in 1989, when six Swedish birds were released in Scotland and a further four (plus one Welsh) in Buckinghamshire. By 1992 they were breeding successfully and two years later, the first wild-reared Kites reared young of their own. Further reintroductions went just as well and in 2006, a red kite was spotted over London for the first time in 150 years. It’s an incredible success story and, though some hazards remain, there’s every indication the Red Kite will thrive into the future.