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Words: Jarrod Cotter
Photography: Jarrod Cotter
Featured in the February 2017 issue

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As a result of the world’s longest continual conservation programme, the UK population of kites has risen to such a healthy level that they can now be seen in areas where they have been absent for more than 100 years.

The Red Kite (Milvus milvus) is one of Britain’s most beautiful birds of prey and its flight is among the most free and accomplished of all raptors. Its rusty red plumage, deeply forked tail and often angled wings make it easily identifiable as it twists and turns in the breeze looking for carrion, and it is often seen flying above roadsides looking for roadkill. So valued was it for its ability to clean up the streets of medieval London that to kill a Red Kite was punishable by death, though attitudes changed and by the 1890s it was persecuted to near extinction in Britain by the Victorians. Nowadays we have a healthy population of Red Kites as the result of a very successful reintroduction programme, but as recently as the mid-1990s they were extremely rare in the UK.

Red Kites frequent a wide range of farmland and upland habitats. They like forests and woods with mature trees for safe nesting and roosting sites, but conversely need extensive open areas of farmland, pasture, rough grassland and heath for searching for carrion. However, they do congregate in places where food is readily available, such as rubbish dumps or special feeding stations, which have been set up in recent years.

It is principally an opportunistic carrion feeder, being too weak-footed to kill live prey any bigger than a baby rabbit. Dead rabbits form a major part of the kite’s diet, and is an ideal food source as this bird prefers smaller animals, finding it difficult to break through the tougher skin of larger species. That said, sheep carrion does form a part of the bird’s diet in Wales and is sometimes important in harsh winters, but the availability is obviously quite limited. Kites will feed on almost any type of animal carrion, including roadkill.

The kite looks for food by circling and soaring over open ground, sometimes at some height, relying on its excellent eyesight to scour the terrain. Once it spots some carrion, it descends to the ground close to the carcass and walks over to feed. Small pieces of meat such as those put out at the kite feeding stations are often picked up without landing and either eaten in flight or carried to a safe perch. Live prey mainly comprises invertebrates such as worms – in Continental Europe flocks of Black and Red Kites can often be seen following tractors ploughing fields just like gulls do in this country. Small live mammals are only rarely taken when the opportunity arises.

In medieval times, the Red Kite was a very common bird in Britain. Its functionality, cleaning up the dirty streets of London, was so valued by the authorities of the time that anyone found to kill a kite was given the death penalty. However, as times went on its numbers and habits caused a change of opinion. The kites would snatch food out of people’s hands – similar to the seaside gulls of today with holidaymakers’ fish and chips – and they also took linen from washing lines to use in their nests. By the sixteenth century a bounty was put on their heads as they were considered ‘vermin’. Gamekeepers wrongly accused them of taking live game and farmers even blamed them for killing young lambs, which they are simply not capable of doing. As the persecution continued and their numbers fell drastically, during the mid-1800s Victorian taxidermists and egg collectors began to target them too, as they became a valuable species to add to their collections. The Red Kite was extinct in England by 1871 and in Scotland by 1879.

In 1903 protection efforts began, but by that time the kites were down to just a handful of pairs in the remote upland hills of central Wales. Breeding pairs are quite territorial, remaining close to the nest site, and kites tend to stay in their home range all year round, so this small population remained very localised.

Numbers never increased much during the early 1900s, and it was later discovered that this was due to the upland habitat where they had retreated to not being ideal for the kites to thrive in as there was limited food availability. The population remained at below twenty pairs and in the 1950s the outbreak of myxomatosis devastated the kite’s principal rabbit food supply. Then in the 1960s the widespread use of pesticides resulted in a period of poor breeding success, largely due to the production of thinned eggshells which were easily broken during incubation. However, the small number of kites survived all this and later in the 1960s began to slowly spread to better habitats in lowland areas of Wales and at last the numbers rose above twenty pairs. However, during the 1980s it was realised that numbers were unlikely to reach a level sufficient for the species to spread out of Wales within the next several decades, so reintroduction was considered.

For a reintroduction programme to begin in the UK, certain strict criteria must be met. These include the existence of good historical evidence of former natural occurrence; a clear understanding of why the species disappeared; only if the disappearance was due to human action and the species was unlikely to recolonise naturally would it be considered; the factors causing extinction have been rectified; suitable habitat is still present to support a viable population; the birds intended for release are genetically as close as possible to the former indigenous population and that the removal of birds for the project does not jeopardise the survival of the population from which the birds are taken. The Red Kite is one of few bird species in Britain that fulfils all the above criteria.
Juvenile birds were taken from Continental Europe where the population was very healthy, and were released at various locations in England and Scotland from 1989 until 2008/2009. The reintroduction proved a great success and by 2009 it was estimated that the total UK population was around 1,600 pairs. Later in the programme, kites were released in Northern Ireland and Eire, using juveniles from the by then healthy Welsh breeding population.

The Red Kites that we are now seeing in southern Lincolnshire have spread from those released in central England, most notably in the Rockingham Forest area in Northamptonshire where around seventy birds were introduced from 1995-1998. By 2009, when the UK reintroduction programme finished, it was estimated that this area was home to almost seventy pairs.

During the early to mid-2000s kites began to be seen in the Stamford area, which is close to Rockingham Forest and just over the border into Lincolnshire. They gradually spread further east into Lincolnshire and in 2015 I began to regularly see a kite hunting for food in my village just north of Bourne. The bird is most likely a juvenile of one or two years of age which has taken up residence in Bourne Woods. I also regularly saw it in 2016, but have yet to see two together in the area, so I presume that there is not yet a breeding pair in Bourne Woods.

However, I’m certain that this is likely to change as the population centre in the Rockingham Forest area increases further and more juveniles make their way into southern Lincolnshire. With a Red Kite now definitely resident in this area, I would expect that there will be a breeding pair here within the next year or two.

Comments Add your thoughts.

  1. Nicky Reynolds February 02, 2017

    Very interesting. Red kites a common sight near our village just north of Grantham.

  2. Helen June 10, 2017

    Would red kites take blackbirds from a village garden? I saw a raptor take a blackbird from my garden, as it was very fast I saw only that it was a bright orange brown and the blackbird clutched in one claw looked small in comparison.  As I know what sparrow hawk’s look like in comparison it was larger.

  3. Sheila Goodeve July 16, 2018

    I have seen several near Bourne but yesterday I saw one for the first time near Willingham woods near Market Rasen.

  4. Gillian Ayling July 21, 2018

    I saw a Red Kite over Bracebridge Heath, Lincs, yesterday.  It was flying over houses backed by farmland. I haven’t seen one in this county before.

  5. Linda Brown July 25, 2018

    Saw a red kite circling over Hemingby Lane yesterday never seen one here before.

  6. KATE NICHOLSON November 04, 2018

    Travelling to Lincoln this morning on the A158 we saw a definate sighting of Red Kites . One was just past Welton le Wold and the other at Hainton. The one at Hainton was flying near the roadside and had prey in it beak which it dropped. A fantastic sight to be seen.

  7. Jane Chapman January 15, 2019

    Saw a pair of Red Kites hovering over the fields to the west of the cliff road in Leadenham this morning. Stunningly beautiful.

  8. Barry Taylor January 27, 2019

    We saw one today about 2pm quartering a roadside field near Ludford mast, at Bennington. It landed and was eating a dead rabbit.

  9. Fiona Baines February 02, 2019

    Red kite on the outskirts of Leasingham, towards Ruskington on Tuesday 29th January 2019.

  10. Brett Barker March 06, 2019

    Just seen a pair of Red Kites circling over the village of Harmston on the A607, between Waddington and Navenby. 6/3/19

  11. Rich Jones March 12, 2019

    Saw a large kite just above hedge height a couple of weeks ago just off the Barton St near Laceby, then again flying low over our house in Barnoldby-Le-Beck hotly presumed by 4/5 crows.

  12. Colin Rooke May 26, 2019

    There was one over Waddington about 5.15pm this afternoon, being chased by a couple of crows!

  13. John Berry May 26, 2019

    Although not an expert whilst watching cricket today at witham hall school at witham on the hill one was flying around the ground for around 3 hours

  14. Michael Pepper March 17, 2020

    Saw a red kite today flying over Sutton on sea beach. Very distinctive with it’s v tail!

  15. diane jackson April 07, 2020

    Saw a single Red Kite this afternoon over the village of Metheringham, stayed for about 15 minutes.

  16. Paul Metcalfe May 02, 2020

    Unless it was a one off, in September (2019) I saw a Red Kite circling round my village of Aubourn which only seven miles south east of Lincoln, so maybe they are spreading further north. A beautiful site though.

  17. Gwen Guest May 22, 2020

    Have seen a bird of prey over the last three days over Ruskington. Was close enough today to identify as a red kite.

  18. Hugh Darlington June 05, 2020

    Red kite this morning hunting over meadows at Haltham, near Horncastle.

    5th June 2020

  19. John Padley June 15, 2020

    Saw a red kite circling over the flood reservoir at Market Rasen on Tuesday 19th May 2020. They seemed more plentiful in 2018. That year my dau.was at the kitchen sink and one took one of her chickens from the garden before her very eyes ! (small breed of chuck - with woolley legs.) (At Hainton).

  20. Paul W. Bell June 16, 2020

    Just watching a pair of Red kites and a common buzzard flying over fields at Metheringham, near railway station. Farmers have cut the grass and the birds have been flying around for a while.

  21. Ann Marie Edge December 18, 2020

    I have just seen a red kite circling above low lane in Middle Rasen. Beautiful to see.

  22. Peggy King March 10, 2021

    It looks like we have a pair flying over Bourne Woids, Lincolnshire. Lots of flying around in the field behind us

  23. Sara April 08, 2021

    Captured a photo of a red kite sat on my fence in Orby village today

  24. Mick stafford April 17, 2021

    Saw a red kite swooping down by the roadside just outside swaby today on the a16 stunning looking bird of prey it was then being hassled and tussled with a pair of buzzards before flying back towards cadwell

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