Extinct bird of prey takes the fast road to recovery

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ENGLAND has a new motorway bird - the red kite. Confined to Wales for most of this century, the spectacular fork-tailed bird of prey can now be seen regularly from the M40 that links London and Birmingham.

Carriageway twitchers used to spotting kestrels hovering over grassy motorway embankments may now keep an eye out for their larger and showier cousin.

The bird, a carrion feeder and once a scavenger on London's streets (and mentioned as such in Shakespeare) became extinct in England in 1870, and in Scotland in 1890. The remoter parts of mid-Wales remained its only stronghold. But in 1989 a few kites from Spain were reintroduced into the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire - and now their population is booming.

The English red kites have increased from four pairs in 1992 to 20 pairs in 1994, 33 pairs in 1996 and 51 pairs last year, which raised more than 100 young. This year, said Chris Harbard of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), there are likely to be at least 60 pairs.

"In terms of reintroductions, it has been a phenomenal success," he said. Twitchers should be on red alert in particular between junctions 2 and 7 of the M40.

The kites have also been reintroduced to Scotland, where last year 23 pairs bred. In Wales, too, the population is growing, with about 125 breeding pairs, making a total of about 200 pairs in Britain.

But not all is success. Seven red kites were poisoned last year and two nests were robbed by egg collectors, the RSPB said yesterday, releasing figures on crimes committed against wild birds in 1997. Nest robberies as a whole doubled from 37 in 1996 to 75 in 1997, including from 42 peregrines, eight goshawks, three golden eagles and three ospreys. There were 92 poisoning incidents, half of them involving birds of prey.

Of 671 reports of crimes against wild birds, 330 were against birds of prey. RSPB conservation director Graham Wynne said: "It is disgraceful that we recorded 671 bird crimes in 1997, even if this represents a slight drop from the previous year. It is particularly disturbing that birds of prey are still the prime targets of many offenders." He added that there had been a "welcome increase" in the number of successful prosecutions.