Red alert in the sky

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Red kites are now a menace, say critics. Wolds wildlife artist Robert Fuller explains why he finds them captivating.

Red kites are fearless opportunists and have such brazen manners that they often get into trouble.

So much so that in the 18th and 19th centuries they were considered vermin and slaughtered in their thousands.

But on seeing their beautiful russet-coloured feathers and forked tails soaring across a blue sky, I for one am happy to forgive their inappropriate behaviour.

A few years ago, I held a survey of 400 visitors to my gallery, asking what they would like to see me paint next. There were all sorts of suggestions, from polar bears to hedgehogs, but top of the list was the red kite.

Encouraged, I decided to set about studying these beautiful birds of prey. Once on the brink of extinction, red kites have made a spectacular comeback after a nationwide reintroduction programme.

They now enjoy one of the highest levels of legal protection and come under the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Red kites are unusual amongst large birds of prey in that they have less of a fear of man. Instead, they have discovered that when they see people there is often an easy meal to be found nearby.

I have seen them following tractors working in the field, swooping down and catching fleeing rodents and even worms.

Back in the Middle Ages, they were a common sight on London’s streets where they scavenged on rubbish, offal and carrion. Shakespeare described London as a city of “red kites and crows”.

On my travels to developing countries, I have had a glimpse of Britain’s past.

The black kite, the duller cousin of the red kite, is commonplace in African and Asian cities where it is so audacious it will take food out of your hands if you are not careful.

In fact, black kites are so plentiful there that in urban areas they provide a sort of clean-up service which was once valued here.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, our British streets became cleaner and more hygienic meaning that our towns and cities no longer provided ready sources of food.

Simultaneously, sporting estates were set up in the countryside breeding game birds and rabbits to shoot. Red kites were no longer tolerated and became vermin to be eradicated. By 1900, there were no remaining red kites in England and Scotland.

A fragile population was maintained in rural Wales thanks to a band of committed conservationists and to the fact that the land was neither intensively used for agriculture nor popular for shooting.

But nevertheless by the 1930s the population was thought to have reached an all time low of less than 20 birds.

By the 1980s, the red kite was on the road to recovery. I had my first glimpse of a pair of red kites at this time.

I was driving through mid-Wales with my mother en route to visit an art college in Camarthen when I spotted them out of the car window. Their distinctive angular wings and deeply forked russet tail made them easy to identify and I remember feeling very exited to have spotted them, since back then there were only 100 breeding pairs left.

But the growth of the population was slow and many conservation groups feared that natural re-colonisation into England was still a long way off. In the meantime this Welsh population was vulnerable to unforeseen disasters.

Egg collectors continued to be a serious threat, taking precious eggs from nests. And of course the kites’ liking for carrion meant they were vulnerable to poisoning.

The RSPB and NCC (now known as Natural England and the Scottish Natural Heritage) initiated artificial reintroductions of red kites in 1989. They brought birds across from Spain and Sweden and released them in carefully chosen locations in England and Scotland.

I remember the first time I saw a red kite in Yorkshire. It was back in 1991 and I had just returned from art college. It was a windy day and I was out on my father’s farm at Givendale. The wind was blowing swaths of straw across a stubble field, and this kite was flying very low looking for rodents underneath the straw as it drifted across the field. Its acrobatic flight made it look as though it was almost playing with the wind.

I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. There were not supposed to be any red kites in this area and I couldn’t think where this one had come from. I never saw it again, but as it turned out the sighting was a sign of things to come.

Just eight years later, in 1999, Harewood House was chosen as a suitable location to release red kites and they prospered there. Yorkshire had its own population of red kites again.

Frequent trips to see close friends of mine in Skipton means that I often travel through Harewood and I always have my eyes glued to the skyline to see how many I can spot en route.

I was delighted that so soon after the reintroduction in Harewood to learn that two birds had moved to my neck of the woods – the Yorkshire Wolds.

By 2008, seven birds had settled here successfully raising 12 young. There are now 40 to 50 kites in the area using a communal roost near Pocklington.

I have photographed and studied the Yorkshire red kites, but I have never quite got the right pose for a painting. So last year I travelled back to Wales to stay near Gigrin Farm for a week.

Gigrin Farm was one of the first RSPB approved red kite feeding stations and as such it provides endless photographic opportunities. Hundreds of red kites swirl overhead, swooping down to grab at butcher’s scraps laid down by a farmer on his tractor.

Red kites seem to love aerial combat and will chase each other purely for the thrill. I watched as up to 10 birds pursued one bird with a scrap of food in its claws, harrying it until it eventually dropped the scrap – despite the fact that there was plenty of food for all on the ground.

As the food dropped a second kite would twirl down to catch it in mid-air and become the new leader in the game. Sometimes several birds would climb ever higher until they were mere specks in the sky. The chase only ended when the food was swallowed. Meanwhile a new game would be starting up afresh lower down.

The commotion that accompanies these airborne squabbles is ear-piercing. Red kites have a high-pitched prolonged excited screech rather like a referee’s whistle.

There are now many similar feeding stations across the country and they have become extremely popular venues, providing thousands of visitors with the chance to get really close up to these remarkable birds.

But this in itself has caused controversy among some conservationists who say that these feeding stations encourage these already quite gregarious birds to become too familiar with humans. Some landowners are also accused of being motivated by commercial concerns rather than conservation ones.

So it seems that already celebrations of the red kite’s return from the brink of extinction have been marred.

There have been reports that some birds have become so bold as to snatch lunch out of the hands of a school child, while elsewhere there are complaints of red kites swiping poultry chicks from farmyards, filching lapwing chicks from fields and spoiling shoots by swirling overhead on shoot days and preventing the game birds from flying well.

But there is a reason that these birds of prey have developed such a talent for scavenging.

They are big birds. They weigh up to one kilogram which is equivalent to the weight of a buzzard and they have a five foot wingspan, 25 per cent longer than that of a buzzard. And yet they have relatively small feet for their size.

Birds of prey rely on their huge talons to hunt, but a red kite is only really equipped to take on small mammals, birds or insects.

It has made up for this inadequacy by focusing on easy prey and carrion. Let’s hope that this shameless opportunism doesn’t bring it back to the brink of extinction again.

New paintings on show at Robert Fuller’s Winter Exhibition at his gallery at Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale, next Saturday and open daily till November 13. Nature walks, including visits to a nearby red kite roost, accompany the exhibition. 01759 368355. www.robertEfuller.com.