Red Kites are a significant and increasingly visible conservation success story across much of the UK although there remain conservation challenges, particularly in Scotland. RSPB Scotland’s Duncan Orr-Ewing, who has worked on red kite conservation for nearly 25 years, explores these successes and highlights some of the issues that still need to be addressed if this bird’s population is to make a complete recovery.

The history and future of red kite conservation

The magnificent red kite was once a common species in the British Isles. It was reported to be common in the countryside, and also urban areas, where it was sometimes protected as street cleaner in times of poor public sanitation, due to its scavenging behaviour. Indeed, this species has had a long association with man, which was also the primary reason for its swift demise. From the late 1700s, the red kite was bought to the verge of extinction by changes in public attitudes, mainly the Victorian passion for game preservation, as well as the popularity at that time of skin and egg collecting. By the 1870s the red kite was extinct in Scotland, as well as England and Ireland. In the early 1900s there was only a remnant population in the British Isles of around 5 breeding pairs in west Wales.

Red Kite against blue sky with grey clouds

Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

The Welsh population of red kites partially recovered. However, by the early 1980s there were still only around 50 breeding pairs of red kites confined to the central valleys of west Wales. Low productivity and low genetic diversity of the population were causes of concern. The red kite was a high priority for conservation efforts. In 1989, the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural England started a programme of experimental reintroduction of red kites in Scotland and England with the support of Spain and Sweden. For the next twenty years, a joint RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage project worked on the reintroduction of red kites in Scotland, with the ambition of one day restoring all its former range across all lowland areas and the upland margins. Between 1989 and 1994, 93 red kites of Swedish origin were reintroduced on the Black Isle. From 1996-2001, about 100 red kites of German origin were released in central Scotland. Further releases took place from 2001 in Dumfries and Galloway, and then from 2007 near Aberdeen, using donor stock from the growing Scottish and English populations.

This conservation programme for our only native species of raptor, which has all of its breeding population in Europe, has been extremely successful. In 2017, it was estimated that there were about 6000 breeding pairs of red kites in the UK and Ireland representing as much as 25% of the world breeding population. The British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Bird Survey records an incredible 1450% population increase for red kites in the UK between 1995 and 2016, amongst the fastest population increases for any bird species in the UK during this period. As a result of this conservation progress, the red kite has been now categorised as “green” listed, or of lower conservation priority, in the UK Birds of Conservation Concern 4 in 2015.

In Scotland, we have about 350 breeding pairs of red kites, however the rate of population increase has been much lower than in England.  As was hoped for, the breeding range of red kites in Scotland has also increased, and birds can now be seen from the Scottish Borders to east Sutherland. Every year this population continues to expand, and former breeding areas are recolonised.

2 red kites coming in to land in a field
Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

The UK population of red kites has high productivity rates. In England, this may be sustained by high availability of carrion due to large scale gamebird releases. Red kites are also fed in household gardens in some parts of England. In Scotland, the red kite population depends more on wild prey availability. Little use is made by red kites in the UK of landfill or other waste disposal sites in contrast to other parts of its European range. Local feeding stations have been established for red kites by local farmers and landowners in a few locations in Scotland including Argaty, near Stirling;  Tollie, near Dingwall; and Bellymack near Castle Douglas. At sites the public can see red kites diving down and taking small amounts of food put out for them, and be thrilled by the spectacle of close views of these dramatic birds.   

Whilst the red kite population recovery is a major conservation success story, this population recovery is not uniform across the UK, and some significant conservation challenges remain. The most significant problem, due to scavenging feeding behaviour, is illegal poisoning involving the abuse of agricultural pesticides laid out as poison baits in the open. In recent years it would appear that the use of illegal poisons in the countryside, designed to kill foxes and crows, but also in some places used deliberately to target raptors, is in welcome decline. Red kites should be a beneficiary of this situation provided alternative illegal methods are not being employed to kill birds of prey, as sadly seems to be case in some upland areas managed for “driven” grouse shooting.

Red kite flying with trees in background
Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

As a scavenger of dead rodents, secondary rodenticide poisoning can also kill or impair red kites. Recently the Health and Safety Executive have taken helpful steps to reduce this risk by restricting the sale of rodenticides and by providing enhanced guidance to pest controllers and other practitioners. Lead poisoning from feeding on dead gamebirds that have been shot and not recovered has also been shown to kill red kites, particularly in England, and there are increasing calls for responsible hunters to use non-toxic alternatives to lead ammunition, such as steel shot.   

The return of the red kite has had wider benefits for the conservation and better understanding of other raptor species, due in part to its public popularity and high profile.  The red kite should also be regarded as key indicator species for healthy ecosystems, as it has a habit of showing the unintended impacts of chemicals and toxins in our countryside. Sadly, in many other European countries the red kite population is in steep decline, and conservationists in these countries are given hope that this situation can be turned around by the UK experience, noting the tireless work of dedicated conservationists, as well as many private farmers and landowners, to improve the prospects of an iconic bird.

Anonymous
  • An honest assessment of the past. These magnificent birds, where they are allowed to exist, are a welcome addition to our wildlife. Let us hope that in the UK at least, they can continue to expand.