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The Red Kite in Britain

by Paul Laurie

Red Kite

Birds of prey are for many bird watchers the most exciting group of birds to study and in north Norfolk we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to see many birds of prey, or raptors, as most bird watchers call them, through out the year. Almost any coastal site in the county will provide great views of Marsh and Hen Harrier, while the scarce Montagu's Harrier is becoming a common sighting during the summer months along with the Hobby. Common Buzzard is a raptor that has become a regular breeder in recent years and can be seen over woodland and farmland in much of the county with the scarcer Goshawk occasionally seen.

One of the most beautiful and spectacular raptors is the Red Kite and what use to be a infrequent visitor has become a much more common addition to our north Norfolk skies. This large raptor with a five foot wing span and conspicuous reddish-brown deeply forked tail was once a very common bird in Britain and shared the streets of London with it's human inhabitants feeding on refuse and human waste. In the 15th Century the Red Kite was give special protection because it was responsible, along with Ravens, for keeping the streets clean and preventing outbreaks of disease.

With the improvements in sanitation in towns and cities the numbers of the Red Kite dropped, in the open countryside birds were persecuted by small holders as they were blamed for taking poultry and even livestock along with other raptors and animals such as the fox. The persecution was so successful that by 1863 only one pair of Red Kites bred in England and these would have been prized among egg collectors and taxidermists. In 1881 a Red Kite was seen at Winterton in east Norfolk but there were no further records until 1958 a gap of 77 years.

The population of Red Kites in the Welsh stronghold also suffered and were thought to be at an all time low in the 1930s when ten pairs were present. This low breeding number and the continued persecution ensured that with in a few years the Red Kite would be extinct as a breeding species in Britain and we would lose this superb bird.

Beautiful birds such as the Red Kite should not be lost and a number of like minded individuals have endeavored to ensure the survival of the Red Kite by introducing wild birds to areas of Wales and England during the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s this was unfortunately with little success and it was not until an ambitious scheme that began in 1989 and continued in the 1990s that any true progress was achieved.

Swedish, Spanish and German birds were taken as nestlings transported to Britain and released in to the wild and provided with food for the first few weeks of their new lives. Sites were carefully chosen for the suitable habitat and the success of other carrion feeding birds such as Common Buzzards was taken in to consideration. Between 1989 & 2000 about 395 birds were released and the Kites quickly took to their new home. In the Chilterns of southern England, 93 KItes were released over a five year period in 1992 four pairs breed in the area this increased to an awesome 112 pairs breeding in 2000.

In Norfolk there were no release programmes as the countryside is largely unsuitable. Though the increase in sightings over the last few years and the occasional attempts of breeding pairs the Red Kite may become more common. Wintering birds have been seen in recent years at Cockthorpe and Great Massingham Heath.

Reintroduction of species is always the last hope, the efforts of all the conservation groups and the individuals involved in the Red Kite programme should be applauded for they have given the Red Kite a chance of continued survival and have ensured that at least one of our most beautiful birds is seen and enjoyed by many across Britain.


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