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Red Kites At Thixendale

‘Red Kites: The Chase’, painting by Robert E Fuller

 

This morning I spotted two red kites soaring above Thixendale for the first time. I’ve seen one flying solo above the valley before, but never a pair. It’s not that long ago that these beautiful, acrobatic birds were on the brink of extinction and whenever I see one I can’t help feeling a sense of victory on their behalf.

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. Watching the pair dipping and diving above Thixendale, it seems strange to think that these magnificent birds were once so vilified that they were almost lost to the world.

They are unusual amongst large birds of prey in that they can become used to people and don’t fear man. Instead they take up any opportunity to steal 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’.

Red Kite At Deep Dale, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller. £100

On my travels to developing countries, I have had a glimpse of Britain’s past. The black kite, the red kite’s duller cousin, is commonplace in the cities of Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean where they are so brazen they will even take food out of your hands if you are not careful. They also provide a sort of clean-up service which was once valued over here.

By the 18th and 19th centuries Britain’s streets were cleaner and more hygienic and our towns and cities no longer provided ready sources of food for red kites. At the same time sporting estates in the countryside began breeding gamebirds and rabbits to shoot. Red kites were no longer tolerated. They were slaughtered in huge numbers. By 1900 there were no red kites left in England and Scotland.

Thanks to a band of committed landowners and conservationists a fragile population was maintained in rural Wales. Nevertheless by the 1930s this reached an all time low of less than 20 birds.

By the 1980s the red kite was on the slow 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. 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, since red kites are scavengers, 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 my father’s 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. It looked as though it was almost playing with the wind. Then I realised it was watching the straw moving – looking for an easy meal. 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 some 60 kites in the area using a communal roost at Nunburnholme.

I have photographed and studied the Yorkshire red kites, but I have never quite got the right pose for a painting. A few years back I traveled 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.

Sadly the red kite is a bird that will always court controversy. Perhaps because it is both an accomplished hunter and a scavenger. Whilst some have celebrated its return from extinction, others complain that these birds snatch food, 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 – but let’s make sure that this doesn’t ever happen again.

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2 comments on Red Kites At Thixendale

  1. I too have been to the Welsh feeding station, incredible sight! Also in the summer I attend Leeds Ch Dog Show & one year watched a kite pinch someone’s meat straight off their barbecue!!! We often watch them whilst showing the dogs. Lovely distraction. Wonderful paintings 🙂

  2. I work at Blue Keld between Cranswick and Watton and see a Red Kite on a regular basis . Its beautiful to watch such a magnificent bird in flight

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