Red kites were reintroduced to England 30 years ago and found a happy home in Yorkshire
It is 30 years this month since the majestic bird of prey was reintroduced to the wild in England.
In July 1990 they were saved from national extinction in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, when 13 young red kites, flown over from the Navarra region in Spain, took to the skies in their maiden flight.
Persecution over a 200-year period meant numbers had fallen as they increasingly became a target for egg collectors, reducing them to a few breeding pairs in central Wales.
By the 1980s, the red kite was one of only three globally threatened species in the UK.
Natural England chairman Tony Juniper said: “Red kites are one of our most majestic birds of prey with a beautiful plumage, and are easily recognisable thanks to their soaring flight and mewing call. Persecuted to near-extinction, they have made a triumphant comeback in England over the past three decades.
"Thanks to this pioneering reintroduction programme in the Chilterns, increased legal protection and collaboration amongst partners, the red kite stands out as a true conservation success story.”
The Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England) collaborated with the RSPB, Joint Nature Conservation Committee Zoological Society London and British Airways to release the birds 30 years ago in an area on the Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire border.
The UK had a only a few dozen red kites, but now there are more than 10,000.
In 1999, they were released at the Harewood Estate, unexpectedly proving a success and quickly spreading to the Yorkshire Wolds in the East Riding.
Harrogate man Doug Simpson was the programme officer who brought the birds to Harewood that year, and now helps to monitor the region’s numbers with the Yorkshire Red Kites group.
During a count last year around 450 were detected at roosts in the region, but Mr Simpson, 78, said that not all the county’s kites would have gone to those locations, while others would have resting at sites unknown to the group, and estimated that more than 1,000 of the species could be in Yorkshire.
He said: “It took us by surpirse, just how well they did take to Yorkshire. Most of us, myself included, had the initial perception that you had to get into remote places in Wales to see kites and it was in a number of sparsely populated areas where kites would subsist.
"In reality, they are not birds of those remote areas, they’re actually birds of farmland, the sort of territory we’ve got lots of in Yorkshire.”
A spokesperson for Harewood House Trust said: "Harewood House Bird Garden, celebrating 50 years this year, has a rehabilitation function for injured red kites, and has been actively involved in the release of the breeding pairs over the years.
"Red kites flying overhead at Harewood are a familiar and much loved sight, regularly photographed and admired."
Jeff Knott, an RSPB operations director, said it had been a “fantastic example of conservation in action”. He said: “In the 1980s, anyone wanting to see a red kite had to make a special pilgrimage to a handful of sites.
“Today it is a daily sight for millions of people. In a few short decades we have taken a species from the brink of extinction, to the UK being home to almost 10 per cent of the entire world population. It might be the biggest species success story in UK conservation history.”
Persecution still happening
The persecution of red kites continues in Yorkshire despite this being the previous cause of their near-extinction.
Mr Simpson said that there is a “stubbornly persistent” issue in the Nidderdale AONB Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
And near Leeds Bradford Airport, there was “particularly sickening” instance of one being shot off its nest, he said.
He said that one reason for this was a suggestion that birds such as red kites could disturb shoots on grouse moors.
“There’s a zero tolerance of anything that’s not a red grouse,” he said.