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.
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 28 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.
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.
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.
There’s further information and videos here.