The red kite returns to Yorkshire
- Credit: Mike Snelle
There are few moments that genuinely stop you in your tracks, but seeing a red kite seemingly hovering over a busy main road, just inches above rooftop satellite dishes is certainly one of them. Unless you happen to live in the north of Leeds, it’s unlikely that you can add this bird of prey to your own garden tick list, but nowadays you don’t actually have to go that far to see one.
With their five foot wingspan, rich chestnut bodies and brilliant white wing patches standing out against their jet black pointed wing feathers, red kites are one of our most striking raptors. It’s the tail however, that instantly gives them away, an unmistakable ‘fork’ instantly telling them apart from the fan shaped tail of a buzzard.
These majestic creatures pair up for life, although this may be less to do with a sense of commitment to each other and more about their attachment to a chosen territory. Red kites build rather raggedy nests, lined with sheep’s wool and then indulge in a spot of interior design using paper, plastic and even cloth. Indeed Shakespeare noted this inclination towards man-made decorations in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ which includes the line ‘When the kite builds, look to lesser linen’. Pinched undergarments are far from the most unusual decoration though – the first successful red kite nest in Yorkshire included the severed head of a teddy-bear, while another Yorkshire nest was found to contain a St George’s flag, discovered less than an hour before England faced Paraguay in the 2006 World Cup!
Today, seeing a red kite soaring on the wind is a joy to behold in several parts of the country. But, just a generation ago, they were threatened with extinction in the UK, with the very real threat that this graceful bird would be lost forever from our skies.
Still a rare bird in the UK just a couple of decades ago, this picture was in stark contrast to the red kite of the Middle Ages. Roll back in time and we find them a common urban bird, scavenging off the plentiful carrion and rotting food that lay about the streets. Their role in street cleaning was so valued that these avian dustmen were protected by royal decree. Red kites were once as synonymous with London as ravens are today, with Shakespeare referring to the capital as the ‘city of kites and crows’.
Red kites did not hold this favoured position for long, though. Improvements in hygiene and sanitation meant less free food lying around, and attitudes towards red kites started to shift drastically. Despite their scavenging nature, people began to perceive red kites as a threat to livestock, no doubt in part due to their hooked beaks and sharp talons. Far from the royal protection that they had enjoyed just a hundred years earlier, the 16th century saw red kites categorised as vermin, with a bounty placed upon their heads.
The following centuries saw red kites slaughtered in their droves, causing numbers to decline drastically across the land. The rise of the Victorian obsession for egg and skin collecting dealt the red kite a final crippling blow, wiping them out of England and Scotland, with only a handful of birds confined to the deepest centre of rural Wales.
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Extinction seemed to beckon for this once widespread bird, but thanks to the efforts of an unofficial band of landowners, farmers and conservationists, this fragile population clung on for over one hundred years. Despite their admirable endeavours, after decades of teetering on the brink, it was clear the only way red kites would make a comeback would be through human intervention.
So began what has now become one of Britain’s most successful conservation programmes of all time. Threatened across their global range, with almost the entire world population in Europe, red kites were a number one species for reintroduction in the UK. In 1989, six red kites originating from Sweden were released on Black Isle near Inverness, while five red kites, four of Spanish decent and one from the Welsh population, were released in the Chilterns. Over the next five years, nearly one hundred red kites were released at these two locations, predominantly from Spain and Sweden due to a genetic similarity with the Welsh population.
An early milestone came in the form of successful breeding in 1992 at both release locations, with red kites themselves reared in the wild raising young successfully just two years later. These successes triggered further reintroductions, in the Midlands and in central Scotland.
In 1999, after an absence of around 150 years, red kites finally returned to Yorkshire. Over a period of four years, a total of 68 young red kites sourced from the newly established Chilterns population were released at Harewood House, near Leeds. To the delight of everyone involved with the Yorkshire Red Kite Project, the first successful breeding took place in 2000, just a year after the initial release.
Just over a decade later, Yorkshire’s red kites were spreading further afield and, in 2011, a pair bred in the Yorkshire Wolds, the first time in over a century. While their numbers are still far lower than that of the ‘vermin’ of the 16th century, the lazy swirling flight of the red kite is now frequently seen above the gentle hills of the Yorkshire Wolds and is becoming more common over the dramatic landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales. Red kites have even started their comeback to the capital, with the first red kite seen over the streets of London in 2006.
Few of us are lucky enough to be able to see red kites from our doorstep but there are places you can visit to seek them out in their new Yorkshire haunts. Over the last few years, regular winter roosts have formed at Nunburnholme, near Pocklington, and in the Wharfe Valley around the Harewood Estate near Leeds.
Try to time your visit for the late afternoon, as the birds start returning to the roost but before they settle down for the night. Red kites often indulge in a spot of pre-bedtime ‘play’, involving elaborate displays of stick passing, aerial chases and mock fights as the young birds tumble together, learning and improving the skills that will equip them in later life.
Be in raptures for raptors
Along with the red kites of the Yorkshire Wolds, there are plenty of other birds of prey to seek out this winter.
Spurn Point and the Outer Humber marshes, Holderness
Peregrine falcons and our smallest raptor, the merlin, will hope to ambush winter wading bird flocks as they roost, while short eared owls prefer to silently quarter the saltmarshes alongside occasional hen harriers.
Tophill Low, Driffield/Beverley
Several barn owls call Tophill home, with a supporting cast of kestrels, sparrowhawks and occasional visits by marsh harriers too. Vast flocks of ducks mean you can never rule out a visit from a peregrine. Red kites often drift over in search of easy pickings.
North Cave Wetlands, Brough
A veritable smorgasbord of wading birds and waterfowl means peregrines are a regular visitor, and marsh harriers also increase in their appearances during the colder months. The grasslands host keen-eyed kestrels and a merlin dashing through is always a possibility.
This vast reedbed is home to a well-known winter roost of hen harriers and marsh harriers, and a lingering rare Montague’s harrier may be present after their summer nesting. Large flocks on the wetlands will attract regular peregrine and merlin looking for a quick meal.