On the brink of extinction in the UK at the turn of the twentieth century, and with the longest continuous conservation effort in the world, the Red Kite has a complex history and exciting future. We decided to get to know our red-feathered namesake a little better in a two-part blog.
Read part one here.
In the Medieval Era, the Red Kite was prized in the UK as a street-cleaning scavenger and was protected by royal decree. Killing a Red Kite could even result in capital punishment. By the 1600s, Kites had become so widespread that they were labelled as vermin. Famers and game-keepers mistakenly accused them of killing their animals, and bounties were placed on them. By the mid-1800s the bird had become the target of bounty hunters, poaching for taxidermy, and thieves who sold their eggs to collectors.
This was so damaging that the once-prized Red Kite was entirely extinct in England and Scotland by the 1870s. In Wales there was only one remaining breeding pair in the 1930s.
To combat this almost complete extinction of the Red Kite in the UK, a conservation programme was creating in 1903 to try and protect them. This is now the longest continuous conservation programme in the world.
Poor habitat and food, in addition to a devastating disease outbreak in the 1950s, meant that the bird was unlikely to naturally spread outside of Wales. However, the RSBP and NCC met in 1986 to discuss the reintroduction of the Red Kite to England and Scotland, and the process began in the early 1990s with huge success. Populations were established in both countries and there are now around 1600 breeding pairs across the UK – half of which are outside of Wales. While most of the Red Kites you see today are reintroduced, there is still a small population in Wales which are descended from the last breading pair from the early 20th century.
Red Kites are still under a special protection status, with prison sentences and fines for any offence against the birds or their nests. However, many are poisoned by bait left for foxes or crows, or are poisoned due to pesticides and rodenticides. In fact, poison is the largest cause of death among the Red Kite population in England, and this is dramatically slowing the rate of population growth. Because of this, the birds are still listed as Amber on the conservation lists.
Despite this, this beautiful and resilient bird is still making positive progress. World population is up to 1800-2400 pairs, and they can now be spotted all over the UK – including near us in South Lincolnshire!