If you’ve spotted a red kite recently flying over or near Fleet, you may not realise that they were nearly extinct until their re-introduction 30 years ago.
Conservationists are celebrating a landmark moment in English wildlife conservation this month, as July sees the 30th anniversary of the re-introduction of red kites. The re-introduction of red kites was a trail-blazing project, and paved the way for successful reiintroductions of other bird species.
The red kite is one Britain’s most distinctive birds of prey with an unmistakable reddish-brown body, angled wings and deeply forked tail, and known for instantly recognisable mewing call. Red kites used to breed across much of the UK, but persecution over a 200-year period saw numbers fall as they increasingly became a target for egg collectors, reducing them to a few breeding pairs in central Wales. By the 1980s, the red kite was one of only three globally threatened species in the UK.
In July 1990 in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 13 young red kites – recently flown over from the Navarra region in Spain – took to the skies in their maiden flight in England, as part of an ambitious reintroduction programme.
The re-introduction 30 years ago was hugely successful and helped established a thriving population of the birds in the Chilterns area, selected due to its suitability in meeting the criteria set out by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
The move led to further introductions and the eventual re-establishment of red kites across the UK. By 1996, at least 37 pairs had bred in southern England and today red kites can be seen regularly in most English counties with an estimated 1,800 pairs breeding across the UK.
The Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England) collaborated with the RSPB, Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Zoological Society London and British Airways to release the birds 30 years ago in an area on the Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire border.
Red kites first breed at two years old and produce a single clutch of around three eggs, returning to the same nests each season. They feed mainly on carrion and worms, but are opportunistic and will occasionally take small mammals.