The Red Kite in Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 10:45 05 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:46 20 February 2013

The Red Kite

The Red Kite

The red kite returns from virtual extinction in 1903.

On long motorway journeys, I always take special notice of any large birds either perching on roadside posts or soaring overhead. Driving home recently from Dorset for the first time I actually saw more red kites than buzzards - six kites to three buzzards. This reminded me that it isn't unusual now to see a kite in the Peak District. Last month, while trying to photograph golden-ringed dragonflies, I watched a kite working its way across Big Moor. Even more impressively, in April last year I actually saw a kite flying over a fairly urban area of Sheffield.

These sightings may seem insignificant yet they are really an incredibly impressive sign of a well thought-out reintroduction scheme that has been going on in the UK for the last 20 years. Kites almost certainly bred in the Peak in the past, though there is no documented nest. J.J. Briggs, writing in 1849 in his Catalogue of the Birds of Melbourne (Derbyshire) says the kite is 'to be there sometimes seen sailing over the grass fields at a considerable height, in a steady and graceful manner'. Up until the 1840s kites were fairly well distributed and a common sight throughout the UK. In medieval and Elizabethan London they were even to be found scavenging on the streets. Shakespeare refers to them in this respect: 'I should have fatted all the region kites / With this slave's offal' (Hamlet, II ii). However, from the 1840s onwards the tale is a dismal one of continuous persecution by the gun and pole trap.

By 1903 there were only three or four pairs in central Wales and the kite was extinct in the rest of Britain. The situation was very serious and a Kite Committee was set up to rescue the bird. Initially success was limited and the persecution continued. In the 1920s an egg dealer, C.H. Gowland, imported at his own expense kites' eggs from Spain and placed them in buzzards' nests. At least 30 youngsters hatched but it is not known how they fared or how the genes they carried were incorporated into the remaining Welsh birds. Up to the 1970s, the kite population slowly grew in Wales but they didn't seem keen on extending their range out of the country.

Then the idea of reintroducing them to selected areas of the UK came to the fore. Reintroductions have to be carefully thought out and planned and a number of criteria need to be followed. For example, the bird in question must once have been present at the release site and the reasons why they are no longer there need to have been rectified. There must be a suitable habitat and the birds must be genetically as close as possible to the original birds. It is also necessary that their removal from somewhere else does not jeopardise that population. All these criteria are actually met by many areas within the UK and it is unfortunate that the southern part of the Peak District has never been chosen.

The reintroductions started with releases into Scotland and Buckinghamshire in 1989 with birds from Sweden and Wales. Further releases occurred throughout the 1990s in the Isle of Wight, southern Scotland, Oxford and lastly Harewood House near Leeds.

It is probably birds from the sites in the Midlands that we now see regularly in the Peak, although the success of the release at Harewood will doubtless result in some of these birds migrating south to us. The reintroductions have stopped and the hope is that the red kite will now successfully return to its former homes under its own steam. It can only be a matter of a few years before we have the red kite back as a breeding species.

The red kite has many other names, the Welsh call him Barcud and other names refer to the diagnostic fork tail. Wordsworth referred to the red kite as the Glead:

'With admiration would he lift his eyes
To the wide-ruling eagle, and his hand
Was loth to assault the majesty he loved:
Else had the strongest fastnesses proved weak
To guard the royal brood. The sailing glead,
The wheeling swallow, and the darting snipe;
The sportive sea-gull dancing with the waves,
And cautious water-fowl, from distant climes,
Fixed at their seat, the centre of the Mere;
Were subject to young Oswald's steady aim,
And lived by his forbearance.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the red kite, apart from its gorgeous plumage, is its mastery of the air. To watch a a number of kites wheeling, turning on a sixpence, then dropping out of the air to snatch food from the ground is one of the great avian sights. Gigrin Farm in central Wales is one of a number of places where wild kites are fed every day. I have seen a staggering 70 birds in the air at one time, and to think that the total population only a 100 years ago was six or seven birds!

Finally, I will leave it to Buffon, quoted by Macgillivray in his superb work of the 1830s, to describe the flight of the kite: 'One cannot but admire the manner in which it is performed; his long and narrow wings seem immovable; it is his tail that seems to direct all his evolutions, and he moves it continuously; he rises without effort, comes down as if he was sliding on an inclined plane; he seems rather to swim than fly.'

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