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October 2011: Red Kites flourish on the Wolds

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Red Kites - flourishing on the Yorkshire Wolds

Red Kites - flourishing on the Yorkshire Wolds

Wolds wildlife artist Robert E Fuller watches the progress of the red kite in Yorkshire as featured in the Yorkshire Post October 2011.

I RAN a survey in the gallery about what I should paint next, a few years ago. There were all sorts of suggestions from polar bears to hedgehogs. But top of the list was the red kite, so I decided to set about studying these beautiful scavengers.Once on the brink of extinction red kites have made a spectacular comeback after a nationwide reintroduction programme and have one of the highest levels of legal protection under the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Red kites are unusual amongst large birds of prey in that they can become used to people and don't fear man. Instead they take up an opportunity of an easy meal. I have seen them following tractors working in the field, swooping down and catching fleeing rodents. Back in the Middle Ages they were a common sight on London's streets where they scavenged on rubbish, offal and carrion. Shakespeare described London as a city of 'red kites and crows'

On my travels to developing countries, I have had a glimpse of Britain's past. The black kite, the duller cousin of the red kite, is common place in the cities of Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. They are so brazen they will even take food out of your hands if you are not careful and are plentiful due to the amount of food that is readily available in urban areas. They provide a sort of clean-up service which was once valued here.

In the 18th and 19th centuries our streets became cleaner and more hygienic meaning that our towns and cities no longer provided ready sources of food. Simultaneously, sporting estates were set up in the countryside breeding gamebirds and rabbits to shoot. Red kites were no longer tolerated and considered a threat and vermin and slaughtered in huge numbers. By 1900 there were no remaining red kites in England and Scotland. Thanks to a band of committed landowners and conservationists a fragile population was maintained in rural Wales. But nevertheless it was thought to have reached an all time low of less than 20 birds in the 1930s.

By the 1980s the red kite was on the road to recovery. I had my first glimpse of a pair of red kites at this time. I was driving through mid-Wales with my mother en route to visit an art college in Camarthen. I spotted them out of the car window. Their distinctive angular wings and deepy forked russet tail made them easy to identify. It was an exhilarating moment for me and is a reminder of how unusual it was to actually see on. Back then there were only 100 breeding pairs in Wales. But the growth of the population was slow and many conservation groups feared that natural re-colonisation into England was still a long way off, leaving the Welsh population vulnerable to unforeseen disasters. Their rarity meant egg collectors were a big problem and as they readily scavenge for food they were vulnerable to poisoning.

The RSPB and NCC (now known as Natural England and the Scottish Natural Heritage) initiated artificial reintroductions of red kites brought across from Spain and Sweden in carefully chosen locations in England and Scotland in 1989.

On my return from Art College in 1991 I was out on the farm at Givendale. It was a windy day and I remember watching the swaths of straw laid out on the stubble field blowing across the field. As I watched I spotted a red kite flying low down almost playing with the wind. It was watching the straw as it moved - looking for an easy meal I suspect. I couldn't quite believe my eyes. I didn't know where it had come from and I never saw it again. Little did I know that this was a sign of things to come. Just 8 years later, in 1999, Harewood House was chosen as a suitable location to release red kites where they have prospered. Yorkshire was to have its own population of red kites again.

Trips to see close friends of mine in Skipton means that I frequently travel through Harewood and I always have my eyes glued to the skyline to see how many I can spot en route. And I was delighted that so soon after the reintroduction in Harewood to learn that two birds moved to my neck of the woods - the Yorkshire Wolds. By 2008 seven birds had settled here successfully raising 12 young.

There are now 40 to 50 kites in the area using a communal roost near Pocklington much to my delight. I have photographed and studied the Yorkshire red kites, but I have never quite got the right pose for a painting. So last year I travelled back to Wales to stay near Gigrin Farm for a week. Gigrin Farm was one of the first RSPB approved red kite feeding stations and provides endless photographic opportunities. Hundreds of red kites swirl overhead swooping down to grab at butcher's scraps laid down by a farmer on his tractor.

Red kites are gregarious and seem to just love aerial combat with each other, which makes for excellent viewing. As one takes flight with a morsel of meat up to 10 birds will take chase after it, pursuing it until it drops the food. Food was plentiful on the ground still, so this activity was purely for the thrill of the chase.
The accompanying noise of all of this commotion was ear piercing. Red kites have a high pitched prolonged excited screech rather like a referee's whistle.

As the food drops a second will twirl down to catch it in mid-air and become the new leader in the game. Sometimes several birds would climb ever higher until they were mere specks in the sky. The chase only ended when the food was swallowed. Meanwhile a new one would be starting up afresh lower down.

Many such feeding stations have cropped up since and are extremely popular venues, providing thousands of visitors with the chance to get really close up to these birds. This in itself has caused controversy among some conservationists who say that they are becoming habituated to humans and that some landowners are doing it just to make a fast buck rather than for true conservation reasons. And even though the red kite was the clear winner in my gallery not everyone is as delighted about this century's greatest conservation success story as me.

The red kite is after all a bird of prey which feeds on carrion as well as being an accomplished hunter. Recently a backlash to their triumphant return has been voiced by some, amidst reports that they have become so bold as to snatch lunch out of student's hands, swipe chicks from farmyards, filch lapwing chicks from fields and stop game birds from flying well on shoot days as they swirl overhead.

The red kite after all is a master scavenger. It is the same weight as a buzzard at 1kg, but with a 25% longer wingspan at 5ft. Its small feet give away the fact that they're not really well equipped to take on large prey. The red kite prefers take an easy meal whether it is carrion, small mammals, birds or insects.This unpopular nature was of course what brought it to the brink of extinction last time - let's make sure that this doesn't ever happen again.

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