Kites defy gloom to fly higher than ever

A red kite on the Harewood Estate
A red kite on the Harewood Estate
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Poor summer weather has hit most wildlife hard but one bird of prey is thriving. Sebastian Oake looks at the red kite success story.

It’s been a rotten summer for almost everything outdoors you can think of, from wheat, hay-making and apples to butterflies and bees. But one icon of the Yorkshire countryside has done its best to buck the trend – the region’s red kites are flying high after a successful season despite the weather.

This year 145 young red kites were raised in Yorkshire, compared with 119 last year. And the number of breeding pairs of this majestic bird – recognised by its huge wing span and characteristic forked tail – have jumped to 92, up from 74 in 2011.

Mathematically, the number of young per successful pair may be slightly less than last year but the headline numbers outweigh that. It’s news that has brightened up an otherwise gloomy summer for red kite enthusiasts like Doug Simpson MBE. He is the co-ordinator of Yorkshire Red Kites, a group funded by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust with the task of monitoring the birds and their distribution.

Doug is an acknowledged expert on birds of prey. He was awarded his MBE for work with peregrine falcons in the Dales and it was he who discovered the nest of ‘celebrity’ peregrines at Malham Cove, now as much a draw for visitors as the limestone scenery itself.

“This year we’ve definitely lost some red kite chicks due to the incessant rain and cold nights but overall Yorkshire has done much better than I expected,” he says. “I’ve seen nests in some very exposed locations and it’s miraculous any young have survived at all.”

Over the summer, pairs of red kites have been recorded at a number of new sites in the area. Additional sightings have been made from some surprising vantage points, with the Continental Supermarket in Roundhay Road in north Leeds becoming an unlikely hot spot. It all confirms the ongoing geographical spread of the birds, made all the more remarkable when you consider that until fairly recently they were extinct in England.

Historically red kites were commonplace across Britain but around 150-200 years ago they disappeared in England and even Scotland.

“They were pushed back into Wales due to persecution of various types, by egg collectors and by people who just did not like birds of prey,” says Doug. “And even in Wales the population dwindled to around half a dozen pairs.”

But then attitudes changed. Plans were drawn up to return the red kite to its former haunts. The first releases took place in 1989 in the Chilterns and on the Black Isle near Inverness, using young birds sourced from Spain and Scandinavia.

Next they were re-established in Northamptonshire and central Scotland and in 1999 Yorkshire’s turn came.

Over four years the Harewood Estate north of Leeds became the focus of a project to return them to our region, overseen by Natural England, the RSPB and Yorkshire Water.

“I shouldn’t brag too much,” says Doug, “but we were the only release area that had successful breeding in the first year after reintroduction started.”

Today the Harewood Estate is still the best place to see these kings of the sky but the Yorkshire Wolds, the Harrogate area and lower Wharfedale offer alternatives, not forgetting the food store in Leeds. There are no pairs known to be breeding in Yorkshire south of Leeds, although there are occasional sightings. The birds are reported less frequently than might be expected in areas like the Dales.

But Doug is buoyant about the future. “It is expected that numbers will continue to rise quite significantly. There is plenty of suitable habitat where they haven’t yet become established.”

Not everyone might see this as good news, however. Not so long ago there was controversy within the pages of Country Week over claims that red kites were taking lapwing chicks. Doug Simpson accepts they do very occasionally feed on small birds but any bird book will tell you they feed mainly on carrion, in other words things that are already dead.

I saw my own first kite in the Brecon Beacons. Then five years ago, while on a walk near Henley-on-Thames in the Chilterns, I stood stock still in a field, head tilted back, gazing in wonder at a group of four or five of them.

Just a few weeks ago my partner and I were test-driving a new car from a garage in Harrogate. The salesman spent much of the time looking out of the window. “There!” he cried after a while, jabbing his finger upwards at a large shape circling above the fields ahead of us. “Can you see it?” His voice carried delight and more than a hint of Yorkshire pride. He spent the rest of the drive enthusing about the red kite rather than the car which, incidentally, we decided not to buy.

Kites have, it seems, earned a place in Yorkshire’s heart. And with this year’s figures showing such promising growth, many people are hoping the only way is up.

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Hard core who threaten birds

Red kites do have their threats. “There is a hard core of people – a small minority – who don’t respect the law that protects birds of prey,” says Doug. “In some areas there seems to be zero tolerance against any bird of prey.”

At least two Yorkshire red kites have died after being shot. X-rays showed that one was riddled with lead shot whilst the other, the male of a new breeding pair, was found dead under its nest with a pellet lodged against its spine.