RED KITES have become virtually synonymous with the Chiltern Hills over the past 20 years, but it wasn’t always that way.
Once a common sight in the towns and cities of medieval Britain, the birds had become virtually extinct by the end of the 19th century after a couple of centuries of human persecution, with perhaps as few as a dozen pairs surviving against all the odds in a sparsely populated region of central Wales.
Nowadays the Chilterns is one of the best places in the UK to see red kites, thanks to a successful re-introduction project between 1989 and 1994 – and it was that re-emergence of the species which prompted Emmi Birch to set up a Facebook group for people to share photographs of the magnificent birds.
“The group was created in May 2016 to purely enjoy photographs and film of the red kites,” Emmi recalls. “Living in Buckinghamshire, I have had the pleasure of seeing the red kite population grow rapidly.
“Years ago, we would very occasionally see one and everyone would stop what they were doing and rush outside just to get a glimpse. We now have the privilege of seeing these incredible birds every day in the skies above us.”
Indeed the Chilterns Conservation Board nowadays publishes a leaflet about where to see red kites in the Chilterns, where there are now more than 300 breeding pairs.
Emmi is not alone in her appreciation of the birds, it seems. When she set up the group Red Kite Sitings UK she hadn’t anticipated that it would soon have more than 1,000 members.
On the site’s welcome page, she wrote: “I’m hoping that this group will allow others to post their photographs and film of red kites from around the UK, so that those who aren’t familiar with these magnificent birds can enjoy them and those, like me, who never tire of seeing the kites can just indulge themselves looking at yet more photos and film of these beautiful birds of prey.”
Fellow enthusiasts haven’t been slow to share their pictures of kites soaring on the breeze all over the UK, a reflection of the extraordinary success of this conservation movement, which had its roots in the foresight of some pioneering visionaries in the early 20th century who realised how close the birds were to extinction.
Contributors to the website include Fife-based enthusiast Allan Brown, who has posted a number of stunning pictures of the birds on the wing north of the border.
Describing himself as an “enthusiastic amateur” photographer, Allan says: “I am interested in all raptors, but I particularly like red kites for their agility, acrobatics and colours.”
Another enthusiast who describes himself as “just an amateur with a camera” is Alan Ewart in Wales. He says: “I took up photography less than two years ago and I’m lucky enough to have two feeding stations both within an hour’s drive. Once I’d been once I was hooked on these magnificent birds.”
The full story of the birds’ reintroduction is told in detail by Elfyn Pugh in an article for the online birdwatchers’ magazine Birds of Britain.
By the turn of the 20th century the remaining population were clinging on in their Welsh stronghold, having been plagued by unscrupulous egg collectors, shot for their skins and mounted as stuffed birds in glass cabinets.
A determined group of individuals and landowners were appalled at the continuing destruction and formed the first kite committee in 1903 to start protecting nests, with the RSPB becoming involved a couple of years later.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the red kite identified as a globally threatened species, that the RSPB and Nature Conservancy Council got together to discuss reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland.
The programme has continued ever since, with colour-coded wing tags identifying the different places of fledging or release, from Yorkshire to Aberdeen and the Black Isle.
But the Chilterns remains a major stronghold and a perfect place to photograph the birds soaring on the thermals above Stokenchurch and Radnage.
Says Emmi: “My interest started around 13 or 14 years ago when I saw my first red kite fly over the garden. I was absolutely amazed by the size of it.”
In Wales the kite is a national symbol of wildlife and was voted the country’s favourite bird in a public poll run by the RSPB Cymru and BBC Wales poll and announced by Iolo Williams in the final episode of Iolo’s Welsh Safari.
He said: “The red kite is an extremely deserving winner with a hugely uplifting story of recovery from the brink of extinction. We can be proud that, when red kites were facing such a difficult time elsewhere in Britain, they hung on in Wales and have since gone from strength to strength.”
The enthusiasm is not universal – the tabloids do run occasional stories of residents complaining about being dive-bombed by birds of prey, but Emmi’s page followers are sceptical about such lurid claims, pointing out that the birds are natural scavenger, not hunters, and tend to gather to feed on carrion, mainly dead rabbits, mice and pheasant, and animals killed on the road.
An RSPB spokesperson was quoted in one Daily Mail article reassuring people: “They are not the fearsome predators that people in the Victorian era thought them to be and they are not like a sparrowhawk or kestrel, which would go for a live prey.”
Outside the breeding season the kite is a gregarious species and can be found in communal night time roosts, with up to 100 being counted in Britain and some 500 birds being counted in Spain, where large numbers of European kites spend the winter.
As Elfyn Pugh writes in his 2005 article: “It is a sobering thought but it is now clear that the remnant “native” British population of the red kite came perilously close to the brink of extinction. If that had been the outcome then we in Britain would have been deprived of one of our most magnificent and majestic birds of prey.”
That’s a sentiment Emmi and her fellow red kite enthusiasts would endorse. The distinctive whistling call of roosting kites is echoing loud and clear across the Buckinghamshire countryside these days – and long may that continue.