Red kite makes triumphant return in England and Scotland but numbers decline elsewhere

A A A

The red kite, the large fork-tailed bird of prey reintroduced to England a decade ago, is booming so much that its population in the Chiltern Hills north-west of London is now believed to be the densest in Europe.

The red kite, the large fork-tailed bird of prey reintroduced to England a decade ago, is booming so much that its population in the Chiltern Hills north-west of London is now believed to be the densest in Europe.

Nearly 150 pairs are nesting in the undulating beechwoods along the Chiltern ridge from Goring in Oxfordshire to Luton in Bedfordshire, new figures show, and the bird is now a regular and spectacular sight along the M40 motorway which cuts through the Chiltern escarpment at Aston Rowant, between High Wycombe and Oxford.

A carrion feeder and once a scavenger on London's streets (and mentioned as such in Shakespeare), the red kite became extinct in England in 1870, and in Scotland in 1890. For most of the 20th century the remoter parts of mid-Wales remained its only stronghold.

But in the late 1980s the decision was taken to reintroduce it to England and Scotland, using birds from Spain and Sweden, and the project has turned into one of the most successful bird reintroduction programmes ever seen.

From having no birds in 1989, England had 177 pairs nesting last year, while Scotland had 50. In Wales, although no survey was carried out last year, it is thought that between 300 and 350 pairs are nesting. The English birds consist of 142 pairs in the Chilterns, 25 pairs in Northamptonshire and a further 10 pairs in Yorkshire.

The full British population of between 500 and 600 pairs, still steadily expanding, is now regarded as the healthiest in Europe, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Other red kite populations, such as those in Spain, France and Germany, are declining, or at best stable.

The concentration along the Chiltern ridge is now probably Europe's densest, said the RSPB's Graham Madge. "The breeding success is really unprecedented."

So common have these birds become that it is rare to drive down the great chalk cutting where the motorway bisects the Chiltern ridge, and not see one. On the M40 they have replaced the kestrel as the common bird of prey.

Drivers should look out for a large bird with a noticeable forked tail, soaring in flight, or slowly flapping long wings with white patches and finger-like feathers projecting at the end.

The Chiltern birds have probably done so well because of an ample supply of tall trees for nesting and thermals the birds can use to soar on to spot the dead animals on which they feed, Mr Madge said.

However, both the RSPB and English Nature, the Government's wildlife agency, are sounding a warning about the dangers that new rat poisons can present to birds of prey, and kites especially, because of their carrion feeding.

A new leaflet spells out the dangers from so-called "second generation" rodenticides, based on anticoagulants, which can persist in the bodies of dead vermin.

Red kites will eat poisoned animals that died in the open and several birds from the reintroduction project have been killed in this way in England and Scotland in recent years. The leaflet gives guidance on how to minimise risk to birds of prey when undertaking rodent control. Other once-scarce large birds of prey, besides the red kite, appear to be doing quite well in England. Honey buzzards, goshawks and marsh harriers all have robust populations now.

In Scotland, the reintroduction of the white-tailed sea eagle to the Hebridean islands is also going well, with several pairs breeding – but nowhere near on the scale of the red kite.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable