Disappearing Britain: Red kites return to Britain with flying colours: Birds of prey imported by conservationists are breeding in the wild. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
THE RED KITE has returned. After an absence of more than 100 years these great birds of prey are breeding again in England and Scotland. And at the weekend 20 more young birds were released.

Once common throughout the British Isles, the red kite was hunted to extinction in England and Scotland while a small colony that survived in Wales was never able to expand. But over the last four years nestlings have been brought from Spain and introduced by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The young birds brought in earlier this year were kept in cages in a wood 'somewhere in southern England' while they matured and adapted to the British climate. Now 16 to 18 weeks old, they have reached almost full size and are ready to fend for themselves.

The birds flew testily around their cages, far too small for their capacious energy. No building could ever be large enough for these creatures which, with their 5ft (1.5m) wingspan, are able to soar on thermal currents over hundreds of miles in a few days.

When their keeper, Ian Evans, opened the doors to release them the birds just stood on their perches for a minute or two and stared as if they could not believe that freedom awaited them. Then with a rush of wings two flew out, banked steeply and, catching the breeze, rose up to the tree tops.

They made for the branches of the tallest tree and perched on the same branch only a few feet apart. One by one the other kites left the cage and soared above the tree tops using their instinctive skills to ride the thermal currents.

A small group of conservationists, who had worked together to bring these birds over, watched through binoculars as the young kites experimented with their new found freedom.

High up the birds turned and, using their tails for fine control, circled the clearing in the wood that had been their home for the last two months, as if inspecting it.

'My God, what's that?' asked one of the group, as something similar in size to the kites became visible over the tree tops.

'It's a Vanguard. Four turbo- prop engines,' Rod Hall said, examining it through his binoculars. 'Tyne engines. I think it was the Viscounts that had Darts. The Vanguards used to be the mainstay of the Manchester and Glasgow shuttles.'

Mr Hall, who works with British Airways, arranged for the red kites to be flown from Spain as part of the company's conservation effort. For the first two years the birds were given passenger status travelling in the main cabin so they could be watched carefully.

The young birds were obtained from the Spanish provinces of Navarre and Aragon, where they are plentiful, with the co-operation of the state's conservation authorities. They were taken from nests that had more than one young, giving the remaining bird a better chance of survival.

The re-introduction of the kites has been organised by Dr Colin Galbraith and Dr Mike Pienkowski of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. 'We have handled them as little as possible,' said Dr Pienkowski, 'because they become imprinted on people if they see too much of them. Then they won't breed because they think they are a person not a kite.'

This year the re-introduced kites have bred for the first time in both England and Scotland. Four pairs in England have produced nine young and one pair in Scotland has produced a single youngster.

'We think they have done very well,' said Dr Pienkowski. 'In the wild a young bird will generally mate with a widow bird and then is able to learn how to rear young. But these birds have no collective experience of that kind. They have done a lot better than we expected.'

The carcass of a fox, shot by a local gamekeeper, was put out on top of the cage for the released birds to return to if they needed food. In the wild parent birds provide the same service for their young for a few days after they leave the nest. But the young birds soon learn to scavenge for themselves feeding on insects, small animals and carrion.

While the young kites have been kept in the greatest secrecy it is impossible to conceal them once they are released. Indeed, the conservationists hope that they will be seen by as many people as possible.

The kites, as if conscious of their duties, have been sighted in various parts of the British Isles including Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall - and one has even strayed as far as France.

The birds can be tracked by small radio transmitters attached to their backs, and they are recognised by soft plastic markers attached to their wings.

Each bird is identified by an individual letter, a colour for the year of release (white this year), and a triangular mark for birds released in England and a V- shaped mark for birds released in Scotland.

'The red kite is ideal for re-introduction because it used to live close to people in medieval times,' Dr Pienkowski said.

'It was a common scavenger in the towns as well as the countryside. But in the 18th and 19th centuries it was hunted because people thought that it attacked game.

'We are relieved to find it does not seem to have preyed at all on pheasants. The attitude of most landowners is completely different today. They are glad to see the red kite return.'

(Photographs omitted)