When red kites were reintroduced in England more than 30 years ago, young birds were brought over from thriving populations in Spain. Now the carrion-feeding raptor is doing so well that English chicks – with distant Spanish ancestry – are being flown back to Spain to boost ailing numbers there.
Fed on culled grey squirrels and meticulously checked by vets, 15 chicks collected from nests in Northamptonshire are this week travelling to southern Spain where they will be held in special aviaries in the countryside until they are mature enough to be set free.
“When we went to Spain in the late 1980s and said: ‘Can we have some kites?’, the Spanish conservationists were really enthusiastic,” said Ian Evans of Natural England, who was involved in the original English reintroduction and is helping with the translocation of birds to Spain today. “The amount of effort to find nests, monitor them and collect chicks is considerable. That’s turned a full circle and we’re doing the same, using the knowledge we built up in the 1990s to help the Spanish.”
Reintroducing red kites to England has been the most successful raptor restoration project in Europe. In 1989 there were just 42 breeding pairs of red kites, struggling in upland Wales. Today there are estimated to be more than 6,000 breeding pairs across Britain, the second-highest national population in Europe after Germany, and 17% of the global population.
The British population is still increasing and there is such a surplus of red kites that chicks have been taken from nests in Forestry England woods in the east Midlands for other translocation projects in Cumbria and Aberdeen, as well as Spain.
Nests are monitored and a single chick is taken only from nests with multiple chicks, so the wild birds continue to rear offspring and don’t abandon their nest. The birds are taken at between four and six weeks old, so there is no risk they will become tame or “imprinted” upon humans.
Thirty birds will be taken to Spain every summer for three years in the project, funded by the EU’s Life programme and supported in Britain by organisations including the RSPB and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation.
Karl Ivens, wildlife ranger manager for Forestry England, said: “I joked to the Spanish ecologist in the 1990s that ‘one day I’ll bring them back to you’, never expecting it to be true. Kites to Spain sounds a bit like coals to Newcastle but they’ve become endangered there after problems with persecution.”
“From a genetic point of view, these birds are really close to the Iberian birds still living here,” said Alfonso Godino, the project manager of Acción por el Mundo Salvaje (Amus), one of the reintroduction partners in Spain, where the population has slumped to fewer than 10 breeding pairs in the south-west. “It’s really amazing that this one action – the reintroduction in England – can get a lovely reaction even three decades later.”
The carrion-feeding red kite has declined in Spain because of the poisoning of animal carcasses, sometimes to protect lambs from foxes. But according to Godino, the Spanish kites can thrive again because tough measures – including prison sentences for illegal poisoning – have now reduced red kite mortality.
“Illegal poisoning will never disappear but the level has decreased a lot over the last decade.”
This was the experience in England after the Spanish red kites were reintroduced. The red kite thrived because illegal persecution fell alongside a rise in the understanding that the carrion-feeder does not threaten the viability of pheasant shoots or other rural businesses.
“Nobody knew if they would leave the pheasants and partridges alone but over time the gamekeepers found out for themselves – red kites don’t eat pheasants and partridges,” said Evans. “A lot of the keepers really got into the kites.”
The RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing, who masterminded the first red kite reintroduction programme in Scotland and is advising the latest project, said: “It’s about conserving biodiversity and we can never be complacent about it. The Spanish population of red kites was almost revered but it shows how things can take a turn for the worse without any protection. We’ve got to keep our eyes on the ball and make a positive contribution wherever we can.”