How the UK’s red kites came back from the brink

After centuries of persecution, the red kite seemed doomed. But thanks to a reintroduction, this spectacular and colourful bird of prey is thriving. Here's how it happened – and what we can learn.
Photograph by Jim Tan
Published 17 Mar 2022, 09:44 GMT

THE SKY rings with the distinctive mewling whistle of the red kite as hundreds of birds, spiralling with easy grace on currents of warm air, glide towards Gigrin Farm. In the surrounding trees, red kites that have already arrived watch the field below with keen eyes in anticipation of what's coming.

In 1992, Chris Powell and his father Either unwittingly became involved in arguably the UK’s greatest conversation success story – the spectacular recovery of the red kite (Milvus milvus). The Powell’s 200-acre farm sits in a peaceful patch of Welsh countryside next to the market town of Rhayader in mid Wales. At the time, the Powell’s enthusiastic spaniel was dispatching rabbits with ruthless aplomb. Rather than waste the carcasses, the Powells deposited them in a field away from their herd of sheep to distract the crows and ravens from harming newborn lambs.

“We came out from lunch one day and two kites were dipping down on the rabbit,” recalls Powell. “We hadn’t seen them in this area ever, so we were really quite excited with that.”

At the time, these charismatic raptors with their distinctive forked tails and rusty hue, while still found in many parts of Western Europe, were a rare sight in the UK. Thrilled with their visitors, the Powells continued to feed the kites with rabbits when they were available – and later with meat from the local butcher.

The elegant red kite is one of Britain's largest birds of prey, with a wingspan reaching 185cm. As such, it's been a victim of historic persecution, much like the only two predatory birds reaching larger sizes: the golden eagle, and the white-tailed eagle. Both have been the subject of controversial reintroduction plans.  

Photograph by Jim Tan

The successful diversionary feeding by Chris Powell has led to his farm attracting sightseers eager to see flocks in the hundreds of the bird once extinct in England and Scotland – and hanging on by a claw in Wales.  

Photograph by Jim Tan

“Next thing we know there was a call from the RSPB, and they wanted an urgent meeting,” says Powell. “We thought we were in trouble, because these are protected species of course.”

Far from it. The Powell’s serendipitous discovery had sparked an idea within the RSPB, which asked the Powell’s if they would be willing to have the first official red kite feeding centre at Gigrin Farm. Ever since then, the Powell family have fed red kites on their farm every day of the year, come rain, wind or shine.

Beginnings of hope

The early 90s was a turning point for the UK’s red kites – a light at the end of a very long tunnel after more than three hundred years of persecution had left the species hanging on by a thread. Red kites were once widespread in urban and rural areas – in medieval times they were even protected as street cleaners in the city of London. But in the 16th century attitudes changed. Red kites became vermin, with a bounty paid for each kite killed.

As well as gamekeepers and farmers who shot and poisoned red kites fearing they would harm their animals, kites were also killed to use for taxidermy, and a particular Victorian fascination for egg collecting further decimated their numbers. Whilst red kites do catch small mammals and earthworms, scavenging for carrion forms a large part of their diet. (Read: Reports of raptor poisonings soared during the UK's lockdown.)

Red kites rest in trees at sunset after feeding at Gigrin Farm. 

Photograph by Jim Tan

The practice of feeding the kites at Gigrin, regulated by the RSPB, helped the population grow in Wales, with similar operations emerging in parts of England and Scotland. Today there are around 1,800 breeding pairs of the bird in the UK. 

Photograph by Jim Tan

By the middle of the 19th century the red kite was locally extinct in England, Scotland and Ireland. Only a small population remained, hidden away in the hills of mid Wales. A study of red kite DNA in 1997 suggests that the population in Wales may have had just one successfully breeding female remaining at one point in the 1930s. 

(Deadly invaders: the non-native species threatening Britain's wildlife.)

In 1903, a small group of concerned naturalists formed the Kite Committee to protect red kites, so beginning one of the longest conservation projects in history. It’s through the efforts of the Kite Committee identifying, monitoring and protecting nests that the few red kites in Wales survived at all. But despite the group's efforts, the population was extremely slow to recover, with only 52 known red kite nests in Wales in 1989.

It was thought that the land in Wales was too marginal for the red kites’ population to grow and expand. So, the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England) and the RSPB made the, at the time controversial, decision to reintroduce European red kites into England and Scotland. Between 1989 and 1994, 93 birds from Sweden and Spain were released in the Chilterns in England and the Black Isle in Northern Scotland with further releases in Northern England, Scotland and Ireland taking place over the next two decades.

“In medieval times red kites were even protected as invaluable street cleaners in the city of London. But in the 16th century attitudes changed.”

The UK’s red kite numbers recovered dramatically over the next thirty years with the Welsh population staging a spectacular comeback, with most of the reintroduced populations establishing themselves and breeding well. From those first two red kites to visit the farm, Gigrin’s daily feeding has grown to what Powell now estimates to be a rolling population of 2,500 red kites coming to feed every week – with as many as 600 birds visiting on any given day.

“Much of conservation is a constant battle against losses and declines,” says Ian Carter, a naturalist and author who was involved with the red kite reintroductions. “The kite is a good news story – it shows how we can put things right if we put our minds to it, [and] it is well worth celebrating.”

(Welcome home: the long-lost English species making a comeback.)

Without more research it’s hard to say exactly what role supplemental feeding played in the red kites’ recovery. Data collected by the Welsh Red Kite Trust shows that between 1994 and 2018, the breeding success rate of 0.9 chicks per breeding attempt has remained largely static. Rather than improved breeding success, researchers believe the benefit from feeding centres may be that they help more kites survive their first winter so allowing the population to grow.

“Feeding sites are not a requirement for kites to do well in Britain,” says Carter. “But especially when populations are small, any extra food that might improve survival rates…can only help the populations to grow and expand more quickly.”

That sentiment is palpable at Gigrin farm in the leaner months. “If you’re here in winter, all those kites are up there are screaming,” adds Powell. “They’re hungry because they can’t get enough food.”

Red kites feeding at Gigrin farm. While occasional predators, the red kite is primarily a scavenger – making it 'uniquely vulnerable to persecution.' 

Photograph by Jim Tan

The distinctive silhouette of the bird – with its forked tail and broad, M-shaped wingspan – has become common above towns and cities as well as in the countryside. 

Photograph by Jim Tan

Changing attitudes

But the role that Gigrin Farm plays goes beyond providing food. “I think the important thing is the public get to see them and it brings an awareness,” says Steven Weekly, a Rhyader local who also runs a specialist photographic hide at the farm with his son.

The Powells understood the importance of public opinion from the start. One of the first things they did was to invite the local Women’s Institute, most of whom were farmers wives, along to the farm for free. At the time, ewes and lambs were still kept in the feeding field and seeing the kites swoop down and feed without harming the lambs helped assuage farmers' fears. Since then, Gigrin Farm has grown into a successful tourist attraction with 150,000 people a year coming to watch the daily feeding from the specially built hides.

“It’s incredible to watch and hear the sound of their voices and the wind under their wings when they come in really quick, they’re just like fighter jets when they come in like that,” says Weekly. “I never tire of it.”

Visitors to Gigrin farm's specially-built observation hides view the daily feeding of the red kites. 

Photograph by Jim Tan

The red kites have proven themselves to be a resilient and adaptive species thriving in a broad range of habitat. What really matters is the way the birds are perceived and so the level of persecution they are subjected too. Nothing illustrates this more than the contrast between the reintroduced populations in the Chilterns in Southern England and the Black Isle in Northern Scotland.

The red kites of the Chilterns have boomed, with an estimated 4,000 pairs in southern England in 2017 while around the Black Isle there are less than 100 pairs. Both reintroductions started in 1989 with the same number of birds released and studies show that nest productivity and food availability to be similar.

The main reason for the low numbers in the Black Isle red kite population is illegal killings, particularly in proximity to shooting estates. According to a 2010 study, 40% of the 103 red kites found dead between 1989 and 2006 were killed through poisoning. In a number of cases, radio tags attached to kites for research purposes were found cut off – highly suggestive of illegal killings. In one incident in 2014, twelve red kites and four buzzards were all found poisoned by pesticides in a small area of the Black Isle at the core of the kites breeding area. 

(Related: Reports of raptor killings soared in the UK during lockdown.)

Gamekeepers have long had a troubled relationship with predators, including birds of prey, that they see as threat to the grouse and pheasants they raise for others to shoot. Attitudes are slowly changing, helped along through campaigns by conservation groups to raise awareness and increase public pressure and stronger legal protection. Nevertheless, old attitudes die hard and in remote areas, gaining sufficient evidence of raptor persecution to secure prosecutions is notoriously difficult.

“Kites are uniquely vulnerable to persecution,” says Ian Carter. “They are largely scavengers so are easy to [kill] using dead animals laced with poison.” This can occur intentionally, but also accidentally when the birds feeds on other animals killed in this way.

The great success of the Chilterns population has also brought its own problems. As a social bird, red kites tend to live in higher densities rather than disperse widely leading some ornithologists to raise concerns of the potential local impact on other bird species. The red kites certainly earned no friends when they were observed taking chicks from the nests of locally endangered Northern lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) in front of the bird hide in one Oxfordshire nature reserve. A study has shown that the problem can largely be solved by offering diversionary feeding.

"The red kites’ future is in many ways dependent on staying the right side of public opinion." After its successful reintroduction, challenges remain for the bird, principally around its peaceful coexistence with the same species that wiped it out in the first place: people. 

Photograph by Jim Tan

In other instances, red kites near airfields have caused disruption to flights and red kites emboldened by regular garden feeding in the Chilterns have been known to swoop down on picnics, on one occasion even stealing food from a child’s hand.

While some would argue leaving leftover meat for kites is no different to leaving out seeds and nuts for garden birds, others might find the presence of a large bird of prey – along with food that may attract rats, corvids and other less welcome visitors – unsettling. 

Understandably, this has caused concern for some residents – not helped by a bevy of headlines suggesting children and pets are now in mortal peril. Mindful of the need for public support, the RSPB and local wildlife trusts now advise against any feeding of red kites in gardens to avoid such incidents occurring.

But despite the occasional controversy, the recovery of the red kite has largely been viewed as a great success – with many people thrilled to see the distinctive silhouette of a red kite circling high above the British countryside. The red kites’ future is in many ways dependent on staying the right side of public opinion, and perhaps it is here, in winning hearts and minds, that the Powells have made their greatest contribution to the red kite conservation story.

“Lots of people come from all over the world and can’t believe what they are seeing and that’s a good thing,” says Steven Weekly, “They go away with a picture in their mind of how great these birds are and why they should be looked after and protected.”

Ian Carter agrees. “If people are enthused about the birds, they are more likely to care enough to want to ensure they are well looked after,” he says. “With so many pressures on our wildlife and wild places, education is very important.”

As far as lessons go for other long-lost species, Carter hopes the successful reintroduction of the kites demonstrates our ability as a nation to live in harmony with other animals long vanished from our shores. “Many other reintroductions have followed on from the kite project involving ospreys, golden eagles, pine martens and more recently beavers,” he says, adding that in the future this may enable us to be bolder, bringing back larger, much-discussed mammals such as lynx and wolves. (Read more about the plan to reintroduce these predators.)

“There will be challenges with these animals, as there were with kites,” Carter adds, “but the benefits hugely outweigh any problems. We only have to look to the near continent to see how impoverished our wildlife has become – and how much there is to gain from bringing it back.”

Jim Tan is an environmental journalist and photographer based in North Wales. Follow him on Instagram.

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