Calum Murray, former Community Liaison Officer of the Galloway Kite Trail, tells us what's in store for the future.
A new chapter for the Galloway Kite Trail
After 16 years, RSPB Scotland has decided to step back from the Galloway Kite Trail and hand over its on-going management to local businesses. The project has been a tremendous success, helping to raise public awareness of red kites as well as promoting Dumfries & Galloway as a visitor destination. Kites are now secure as a breeding species and local communities and businesses have benefited too.
The kite trail was officially launched by RSPB Scotland in 6 October 2003, in a partnership with Forestry Commission Scotland and Anne Johnstone of Bellymack Hill Farm. It received early support from Leader+ and Making Tracks, a grant scheme set up to help those affected by the 2001 foot-and mouth outbreak, which was particularly severe in Dumfries and Galloway. Then, in 2007, the project was further supported through the Sulwath Connections Landscape Partnership (part funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund), enabling the enrolment of a community liaison officer.
Red kite in Galloway countryside ©Calum Murray (RSPB Scotland)
People and place
Having spent 12 years in this role, I’ve come to know many of the trail’s people and been privileged to work around the idyllic Loch Ken and River Dee area. It didn’t just bring the return of the red kite but brought me home too; born and raised in the region, I was only too pleased to get involved and help to benefit this area, after having been away for almost a decade.
I began not only engaging visitors through guided walks and at the kite feeding station but also coordinated further improvements to interpretation, access and promotion of the attraction. Unique information shelters were built, an audio guide and leaflet created and children’s activities were installed.
It wasn’t easy initially, as there were still some doubts that red kites could actually help businesses. But local tourism providers and hospitality trades did appreciate that visitors were coming to see these beautiful raptors. Two years later, we managed to increase the number of businesses involved from seven to 24, with many also supporting the production of a trail guide leaflet. In 2016, an economic report found that this attraction had brought over £8.2m to the area by visitors who were specifically coming to Galloway to see the red kites.
This project has been a success thanks to its people. Not just those coming to experience the attraction and thus improve the local economy, but just as important are those living and working in the area. Without the community support, the rare kites may never have been accepted nor given the chance to breed and spread. Credit goes to the landowners, farmers, tourism and service providers across the region, who really helped to make this project a success.
The biggest winners, of course, have been the red kites. These beautiful birds were locally extinct in Dumfries & Galloway until 2001, when a re-introduction project started that would run until 2005. The first wild red kite chick from the project hatched in 2003, and since then, over 1000 chicks have fledged, with the breeding population now standing at around 130 pairs.
One of my best experiences has to be assisting the former red kite officer in collecting chicks for ringing and tagging (to help monitor their survival and movements). It was also rewarding to release birds which had previously been nursed back to health, following injury or exhaustion. The rare opportunity to handle these wild creatures allowed a unique chance to see close-hand just how proud looking, colourful and beautiful they were, something I will never forget.
Another touching moment was the time I showed a very elderly woman some kites perched only 30 metres away, in a nearby birch tree. As she looked through my telescope she jumped, ecstatic at how impressive these birds were. As she smiled excitedly, it was as though she was a young girl again. A great thing to see, as the lady was in her 90s! People’s enjoyment at seeing nature up close is most uplifting. But then, isn’t that what we do in the RSPB each day to support and save nature?
Red kite pickings at Bellymack Hill Farm ©Calum Murray (RSPB Scotland)
It may be the end of this particular trail for RSPB Scotland and me but if anything, it has been a fulfilling experience to work on a project not only helping people but in saving nature. I am sure the kites will keep on thriving as the trail moves on into a new chapter. And now, it’s time to move onto other challenges, of which there are so many in nature conservation.
But, the Galloway Kite Trail is not closing! It is hoped that local businesses will continue to support the trail in the foreseeable future, and it remains an excellent way to see these amazing birds and learn more about the story of their conservation recovery.
Tourism and service providers will continue to offer information and hospitality on the Galloway Kite Trail. The kite feeding station at Bellymack Hill Farm, Laurieston remains one of the best places to get a close-hand experience of these very social birds of prey, with kites being fed daily at 2pm as they fly overhead in their dozens!
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