The return of the Red Kite to Cheshire and North Wales
- Credit: Archant
This is one of those rare things: a conservation success story. It means the red kite is flying high over North Wales and parts of Cheshire
Most wildlife enthusiasts consider the red kite (Milvus milvus) to be a truly iconic bird of prey. Although its stunning appearance and majestic flight capability are self evident, the survival history of this beautiful raptor - in the face of terrible persecution, is perhaps less well known.
Incredibly by the mid 1950s, it was thought that as few as five breeding pairs only, remained in an isolated area of mid Wales. Now, thanks to dedicated conservation, they have literally returned back from the brink and can be seen in several regions across the UK, including in Cheshire and north Wales.
While many of these local sightings probably involve birds from neighbouring locations where reintroductions have occurred, reports of their presence in Cheshire – notably around the Knutsford and Congleton areas, are increasing. Moreover, north Wales has seen similar trends, where for example, sightings around Denbighshire’s Llandegla Forest and the RSPB’s reserve in Conwy, are now possible.
Among the largest of Britain’s raptors, red kites have a very distinctive and vivid plumage, which together with their profile in flight, helps with identification when compared to similar sized birds of prey. They have a somewhat angled wingspan of approximately 2m and a large forked tail, which are used to great effect to achieve graceful and breathtaking flight abilities. These impressive attributes however, were of little consequence to those who participated in its relentless persecution, which started during the mid 16th century, and continued for more than 200 years.
But why was the red kite persecuted so intensely, until it’s near eradication from the UK?
In 16th century Britain, basic survival was paramount, most of the population struggled to feed themselves; starvation being very prevalent among the poor. Red kites were common sight, but their presence wasn’t welcomed because people knew they rarely hunted for prey, preferring instead to scavenge for carrion, or other food - that may be fit for human consumption. Not surprisingly, people simply considered them nothing more than vermin.
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Drastic action was needed to combat failing harvests, worsening food shortages and widespread disease. In a desperate attempt to find a solution, the Preservation of Grain Act was passed by Henry VIII in 1532. Essentially, this new law made it compulsory for all people to kill any animal listed as vermin under the act’s directive. Incentives, in the form of bounties were paid for carcasses, to ensure an intense persecution activity prevailed. The act was strengthened by Elizabeth I in 1566 with the addition of more species to an already substantial vermin list, thus increasing the terrible slaughter. It wasn’t until the mid 18th century - when the devastating impact on wildlife was eventually realised, that the act was repealed. However, the persecution of raptors in particular went on for another 200 years or so, albeit at a reduced rate.
During the 1960s - mainly to deter egg collectors desperate to add such a rarity to their collection, rigorous nest protection initiatives were finally introduced. Today, it’s estimated that more than 600 pairs now reside in Wales alone, with several hundred – most of which have been reintroduced, in various regions around the UK. Given time, in the not too distant future, pairs might choose to nest in the county!
In support of continuing conservation, several feeding stations have been established in Wales, England and Scotland. One of the oldest and perhaps best known is Gigrin Farm, based near Rhayader in mid-Wales.
The site – which first opened to the public in 1993, also runs a rehabilitation centre for injured birds in partnership with the Welsh Kite Trust. Every day of the year, including Christmas, red kites are fed high quality meat. About one hour before feeding time, hundreds of birds begin to circle high above the site.
Once the feeding area is clear of human presence, birds immediately begin swooping to the ground, grabbing pieces of meat with their talons. For a nominal fee, visitors are guaranteed to see these stunning birds up close and personal. The event is a truly spectacular experience where the agility, grace and beauty of these creatures have to be seen to be believed!
The red kite is now regarded by many as the most beautiful bird of prey in the UK. Indeed, it was voted ‘Wales’s Favourite Bird’ in 2007, following a joint online poll conducted by the RSPB Cymru and BBC Wales.
For more information visit the Gigrin Farm website at www.gigrin.co.uk.