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FOR MOST of this century, red kites have been one of the symbols of Welsh Wales. Embattled in a small but inexorably growing colony among the hanging oakwoods of Ceredigion, they have been seen by local naturalists as a delicious snub to the English landed gentry, which exterminated them in their own country in the 19th century. And sailing above the tourist traffic in the narrow lanes round Devil's Bridge, tortoiseshell plumage touched with ermine, they do have an awesome, bardic presence.

This slice of Dyfed - recently christened "Kite Country" by the Green tourist business - now has 120 breeding pairs, and it is easy to think of them as something uniquely and exclusively Celtic. Yet the colony is, to tell the truth, more like a ghetto. The red kite was once a common bird across the whole of Britain. In the early 15th century, it made such a contribution to public health by scavenging carrion from the streets of London that it was made a capital offence to kill one - the first conservation law not solely concerned to protect hunting rights. But within not much more than two centuries, the bounty was on the kites' heads, not its hunters'. They were persecuted for taking game birds, and, bizarrely, for stealing washing to ornament their nests. (Autolycus in The Winter's Tale, himself "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", warns that "When the kite builds, look to your lesser linen.") The scale of the slaughter was enormous. The Churchwarden's accounts in the village of Tenterden, Kent, for example, records the killing of 432 red kites in just 14 years from 1677. With the spread of keepered shooting estates in the late 18th and 19th centuries, it's no wonder the bird was driven into extinction in England and Scotland, and clung on only in the wild but less bloodthirsty hills of central Wales.

In the Fifties, a group of committed Welshmen formed the Kite Committee, and was able to nudge the population up from a dozen or so pairs to about 100 by the beginning of the Nineties. But their expansion was laboriously slow, and there was some evidence that genetic interbreeding was a contributory factor. There certainly seemed little likelihood of their ever repopulating their old haunts over the border. So, in the late Eighties, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the then Nature Conservancy Council set up a UK Red Kite Project Team, to consider reintroducing the bird to England and Scotland, with nestlings from the large populations in Sweden and Spain. One of the release areas was in northern Scotland, another in the Chilterns, and the number of birds set free into the wild to date is over 200.

Although there have been echoes of the ancestral persecution of the bird (six illegally poisoned by farmers and two shot), the experiment has been a huge success. Since its beginning, 113 young have fledged in England and 42 in Scotland. This year has been the best ever, with 53 young birds flying from 23 nests around the Chiltern site. They have also become one of the great spectacles of this stretch of hill country. You are likely to spot individual birds gliding lazily over roads almost anywhere east of Watlington. They are wonderfully adroit flyers: heading into the wind with wings shrunk back like falcons, then wheeling like eagles, and using their deep forked tails as rudders. No wonder the kite gave its name to the flying toys that were introduced to this country in the 17th century.

But they are sociable creatures too, and often form packs of up to a dozen, to be more efficient at finding carrion. They soar over village greens and stack-yards - a vision of a wilder rural past. I understand purists' feelings that it would have been more satisfying to have let the indigenous Welsh pop- ulation spread east naturally. But our new kites look uncannily at home hanging over the steep beechwoods, a confirmation of what many of us who live here feel - that the Chilterns is, in its history and character, a Celtic landscape itself. !