This year marks the 20th anniversary of the red kite reintroduction programme in Yorkshire. It began with four pairs of this elegant bird of prey being brought up from the Chilterns and released onto the Harewood estate between Leeds and Harrogate.
One of those pairs successfully reared two chicks, and from that small beginning the species gradually spread. Figures for 2019 are not yet available but last year 124 pairs raised a total of 179 young at numerous breeding sites across Yorkshire.
This remarkable growth in population means that many thousands of us can say we have seen one soaring above our gardens. Some fortunate residents of north Leeds have even witnessed one swooping down on their lawns to snatch food. It is one of England’s most spectacular conservation successes.
Whoever named the red kite captured the crochet-tailed bird’s languidly gliding flight and its ability to hang on warm thermals of air as it surveys the ground below for carrion like dead birds, rabbits, and small mammals.
It seems to be as much at home on our remote uplands as it is in built-up areas. Within the space of a few hours last week I saw one near Kirkstall Abbey when I travelled by train along the Airedale Line from Leeds, then later that day I had one in my binoculars as it quartered the moors at Lower Barden Reservoir above Wharfedale.
It must have been common enough at one time in Yorkshire to have been accorded the local name of “fork tail”. Certainly, back in the 18th century there was no shortage of records. A Gentleman’s Magazine article published in 1747 referred to it being on Hatfield Chase and at woods near Doncaster.
But by Victorian times it was considered rare. The pioneering Wakefield naturalist Charles Waterson (1782-1865) wrote that the red kite was among birds which had been “exterminated long ago by our merciless gamekeepers.”
There is no doubt that it teetered on the brink of extinction as a British species, and at one point was down to just five breeding pairs. As recently as 1986, in his The Birds of Yorkshire the Knaresborough ornithologist Dr John R Mather could only list very sporadic observations of single birds, probably on migration or wanderers from the red kite’s last UK refuge in the upper Tywi valley of Wales.
Some red kites are occasionally found dead after eating poisoned baits left by farmers and gamekeepers for foxes and crows. Up to 2018 the figure for fatalities recorded by the Yorkshire Red Kites project stood at 29. However, a story about the longevity of the birds emerged this year when project members visited a newly built nest at a wood in East Yorkshire.
One of the breeding birds had a leg ring, and through high powered optics it was identified as being one of the original chicks to breed at Harewood in 1999. The 20-year-old bird had been continuously monitored, and was reckoned to have successfully raised 36 young birds in its lifetime.