Days out: Watching birds of prey in Wales

A pound of flesh? They'll eat a hundred
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The Independent Travel

It's 2.50 on a calm afternoon, and something strange is happening in the skies above Gigrin Farm, Rhayader. Dozens of beautiful, red-gold birds, their wingspans around five feet, are circling the fields above the valley.

It's 2.50 on a calm afternoon, and something strange is happening in the skies above Gigrin Farm, Rhayader. Dozens of beautiful, red-gold birds, their wingspans around five feet, are circling the fields above the valley.

Flying in their midst are several hundred crows and the odd buzzard. Hitchcock's The Birds springs to mind, yet beneath all this activity, the sheep are still grazing peacefully among the oak trees and a rabbit is nibbling at some clover under the hawthorn hedge.

Suddenly the crows descend en masse. They have spotted the farmer throwing shovelfuls of raw meat across the grass. As they peck at the flesh, the raptors glide in behind them. Without touching the ground, each one grabs a lump of beef in its talons, often knocking a crow out of the way. Some even mug the crows in mid-flight. Then they tuck the meat under their forked tails and soar away into the trees.

This extraordinary spectacle is the daily feeding of the red kites of Rhayader and the public can watch from purpose-built wooden hides just 50 feet away.

The drama is even more compelling once you know the story behind it. Less than 100 years ago, kites were on the verge of extinction, with just one breeding female left in the country. However, thanks to a mammoth conservation effort spearheaded by the RSPB, today there are some 500 pairs, and more than half of them live in mid-Wales.

The Gigrin kites arrived one afternoon 10 years ago. "We came out and saw 12 of them sitting in a tree," says Eithel Powell, 68, who together with his wife, Lena, and 41-year-old son, Christopher, runs the 200-acre sheep farm. The Powells recognised the rarely seen raptors and immediately fed them some raw lamb. Never known to miss a feeding opportunity, the kites took up residence in the 60ft oaks which pepper the nearby Cambrian hills.

Today, on a cool afternoon, up to 200 kites swoop hungrily over the valley. In summer, some 40 or 50 arrive. Weighing just 400g, these birds are too puny to kill anything bigger than a baby rabbit – the laid-back local bunnies clearly know a well-fed kite when they see one. Their natural diet is carrion-based and they thrive on the ready-to-eat fare – 100lbs of beef from the local abattoir – served at Gigrin. Funded by the Welsh Kite Trust, and the EU-supported Kite Country initiative, Gigrin farm is now the area's official RSPB red kite feeding station.

Gigrin offers more than the feeding frenzy. There is a visitors' centre where you can watch live infrared CCTV footage of wild badgers; and a "little bird" feeding station where we saw yellowhammers and goldfinches. By this summer, viewing hides will have built near the badger set and the kite rehabilitation centre should be open.

The great virtue of Gigrin is that it is a proper working farm, complete with sheepdogs and tractors. Although the kite station is totally professional, its surroundings remain untouched by slick commercialism. Refreshments run to a handful of picnic tables and a counter, where you can buy tea, coffee and snacks.

We walked the nature wildlife trail, tramping through gorse-freckled fields dotted with silver birch and mountain ash. Before us loomed the Cambrian hills, a mottled, heathery patchwork folded around the slate roofs of Rhayader town. More than 90 species of bird including skylarks and tawny owls have been spotted up here; polecats and otters lurk on the banks of trout ponds; and a white buzzard is also a regular visitor.

Come tea time, we revived ourselves with deliciously buttery welsh cakes at Brynafon Country House, a hotel situated just below the farm. Just remember to take your binoculars.

The facts

Gigrin Farm, South St, Rhayader, Powys, LD65BL (01597 810243; www.gigrin.co.uk). Kite feeding takes place daily at 2pm in winter; 3pm in summer. Admission: adults £2.50, senior citizens £2, children £1. Rhayader is on the A470, between Builth Wells and Aberystwyth.

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