Silver anniversary for red kites

Today is the 25th anniversary of the arrival of red kites (Milvus milvus) in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  On 1 August 1989 English Nature (now Natural England) and the RSPB imported five red kites and released them in the Wormsley valley, on the Bucks/Oxfordshire border.  This was the first release in England and was a well-kept secret for some time.  The kites began to breed in 1992 and after that became more visible.

Red kite.  Copyright Gerry Whitlow

Red kite. Copyright Gerry Whitlow

The intention was to restore this native species which had been eradicated from England over the centuries.

I first saw the Chiltern kites in 1991 but, as I didn’t know of their introduction, I did not at first believe they were red kites.  My diary records that I went for a frosty run on the morning of 28kite 2 April and saw a pair near Hales Wood in the Wormsley Valley where I later learnt they’d been introduced.  After that, I recorded every siting in my diary, until they became so frequent that it would have been easier to record the days I didn’t see a kite.  They are now estimated at 1,000 breeding pairs in and around the Chilterns.

In 2003 they nested in Park Wood above Turville, high in a beech tree.  I watched the nest every morning (easier to observe at that time of day with the sun on it).  It was exciting to see the kites flying around the nest, then to discover that one was sitting on it and then, on 29 May, to see the fluffy white heads of the young peeking over the edge.  I reported the nest to Nigel Snell of RSPB, but now one reports to the Southern England Kite Group.

Kite's nest in Park Wood

Kite’s nest in Park Wood

Later something large and red appeared in the nest and I discovered that the RSPB had put wing tags on the young.  In those days they labelled the kites on the left wing with a yellow tag for the Chilterns and on the right with a tag coloured to denote the year (red for 2003).  Each bird had a number on its tag and our babies were 77 and 78.  In fact there were three of them, but one was a runt so the RSPB removed it and sent it to Yorkshire where another population was being introduced.  I hope it thrived there and wasn’t teased about its Chiltern accent.

In subsequent years kites occupied the nest again after refurbishing it, though sometimes they abandoned it before laying.  We never saw so many babies again, and I suspect that the kites now have smaller broods, perhaps because they are becoming so prolific and there is competition for food.  Over the years the trees have come into leaf earlier which makes it more difficult to see this and other nests.  In any case, the birds are well camouflaged and it is often hard to see them against the branches and foliage.

Kite in flightKites gather all sorts of rubbish and one often sees coloured objects hanging from their nests; they are known to pinch children’s toys and washing.

Shakespeare refers to kites as thieves of  linen: ‘My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen’ says Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale (act IV, scene 2).   Wildlife Extra calls them ‘kleptomaniacs of the skies’.

The Chiltern stock has done so well that nearly 300 young have been taken to start populations in North Yorkshire, Gateshead and elsewhere.  As the populations spread they will eventually join up so that kites will be seen all over Britain.  They are in towns too;  I often see them over Henley and they traditionally thrived in towns and cities.  They do not mind people provided they are not persecuted.

The kites are now integral to the Chiltern landscape, their cries are so much part of the background noise that I barely notice them—but I cannot fail to notice their magnificent displays and beautiful calm flight.  They are a great asset and a constant joy.

.Kite country

.Kite country

There’s further information and videos here.


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
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7 Responses to Silver anniversary for red kites

  1. Ash says:

    It would be good if all of the UK could celebrate this anniversary. I understand that in the Chilterns there are 10 times as many Red Kites as there are in Scotland where they were introduced at the same time! Poisoning is an issue there! Only a month ago there was yet another suspected poisoning here in Northern Ireland (a female & 2 chicks). I’m not sure how this issue will be resolved!

  2. Geoff Mullett says:

    On our regular trips from Lincolnshire to see family in Salisbury, we always look out for kites as we drive along the A34. We usually spot one, or two if we’re lucky, but a week ago there were five, a real treat.
    They have yet to reach Lincolnshire in any numbers, though they are regularly seen in the south of the county. Having said that, when we moved here 8 years ago, buzzards were a rarity, now they are all over the county.

    • Thanks Geoff, I hope they will spread further into Lincs before long. We seem to have more buzzards than when I first moved here 25 years ago, and I wondered if there was any connection with the kites.

      • Geoff Mullett says:

        Quoting from the Bird atlas 2007-11, buzzard breeding distribution has increased by114% over the last 40 years and has doubled its range. The corresponding increase for red kites is a staggering 2035%, though this will be from a far smaller base figure, still very encouraging.

  3. ossjay says:

    I wish someone could give a foolproof guide to telling kites from buzzards when looking upwards into the sun and unable to see the beautiful plummage or shape of tail! Is it the tone of the mewling?

    • Geoff Mullett says:

      The red kite has a substantially wider wing span than the buzzard – 175-195cm compared to 113-128cm for the buzzard. The kite’s ‘mewing’ is higher pitched, weaker, and more rapidly repeated than the buzzard, that has a far-carrying, plaintive call usually described as a prolonged mewing.
      There are a number of web sites that have the calls of both birds.

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