There’s little doubt that the sight of a red kite is one of the most impressive anyone can have of a wild creature in Britain. It is also one of the easiest to experience. Drive along the M40 and you are sure to see dozens hovering close to the motorway. They are big beautiful birds and it is hard not to look at them with awe and delight.
Red Kites have a long history of close association with humans. Their natural way of feeding is by scavenging, and the detritus available in cities has always offered rich pickings. In medieval times they were protected because they helped to keep down vermin, but as cities grew the tables were turned upon them and they came to be seen as vermin themselves, and a bounty placed upon their heads. In the Victorian era they came to be seen as pests of young livestock and birds, as well as the target of taxidermists and egg collectors, and they were driven almost to the point of extinction. By the 1930s only a few birds eked out a living in remote valleys in mid-Wales. It wasn’t till 1989 that a programme of reintroduction by the RSPB and Nature Conservancy Council brought them back to the Chilterns where they quickly gained a foothold. Now they can be found in many parts of Britain from the Home Counties to Scotland
One of the reasons for the growth of the red kite population is the abundance of food deliberately left out by people hoping to attract them to their gardens. And while stories of them attacking pets are probably exaggerated it does seem that the birds are learning to commute into urban areas from the countryside where they roost at night. A recent study by Reading University has suggested that up to 300 birds a day travel in and out of the city, drawn by food deliberately left out in people’s gardens.
It remains to be seen what impact the rapid expansion of the population will have on the environment both in and out of town. For now, their beauty and status as a rare conservation success means that their place in the British countryside is unlikely to be questioned.
One thing is certain: the story of the Red Kite’s return is one in which humans are deeply involved.