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Monday 3 June 2019

return of the raptors

Low flying birds

  • The red kite was treated as vermin, and wiped out in England and Scotland during the 19th Century
  • There are now an estimated 6,000 breeding pairs in the UK and Ireland following the reintroduction of 93 birds over five years from 1989
  • But illegal poisoning around grouse moors and scare stories about their incursions in suburban areas reveal that the birds are not universally popular

By Michael Hann

In the Wellcome Building of London Zoo, on the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park, there is a small room with two steel tables, roughly the size and shape of hospital gurneys, and another similar table covered by a hood, an extractor fan. This is where the vets of the Zoological Society of London perform post mortem examinations on dead animals. This is where scientists can ascertain how animals have died. It’s where they can work out what needs to be done to secure the long-term health of species.

This is where hundreds of red kite corpses have come over the past 30 years. If you find a dead kite, you could contact your local vet, or wildlife trust, or branch of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). They will take the corpse and wrap it in four layers of plastic, then put it into a box lined with some type of padding, and post it to the zoo. There’s a special Royal Mail prepaid code, and it will arrive by overnight delivery. You can do it all yourself if you can’t work out who to call.

A mass of red kites wheel above the feeding station at Rhayader in Wales

When the kite reaches the zoo’s vets, it will be placed on a tray lined with a cork mat. Its wings and legs will be pinned to the mat, to hold it still for the incision (during avian flu outbreaks the table with the extractor fan is used, until the vets can be sure the bird is clear of the virus). Jenny Jaffe, a 39-year-old Dutch-American vet, is one of the team who examines the birds. Sometimes she finds odd things inside them. “I found a little rubber ring in the gizzard of one kite. It was a castration ring. In the lambing season, the farmers put rubber rings around the testicles and around the tails. Because they’re so tight, the circulation stops and after a few days the testicles and the tail fall off.” And often she finds that the kites have died from consuming anti-coagulant rodenticides, usually an accidental death, after the kite have eaten poisoned vermin, rendering them far more likely to bleed to death after sustaining any wound.

“As rodenticide levels in the liver get higher, you find widespread haemorrhages,” she says. “The main thing is bleeding out. Where normally a healthy bird would have a small amount of bleeding, which would clot and resolve, in this bird the tiniest bump might cause widespread bleeding. You can see that bleeding in the subcutaneous tissues underneath the skin; you see it in the muscle tissues. I’ve also opened up birds that from the outside looked pretty good, with no bleeding in the skin or in the muscles, but when I cut it open the whole of the body cavity is full of blood. They are more prone to bleeding if they hit something, but they can bleed without any obvious trauma.”

A red kite swoops in for meat at Llanddeusant, Wales

It’s a horrible way to die. But knowing how red kites die is about more than understanding this species; it’s about how we take care of all our wildlife; it’s about our attitudes towards the very concept of the wild. The story of the red kite – the only raptor whose entire population is resident in Europe – even tells us something about the unlikely effects of political upheaval.

The red kite was confined to remote central Wales for most of the 20th Century, where its numbers shrank to the extent that the entire population was proved to have descended from one female. Once a ubiquitous raptor, it had been driven to the brink of extinction in the 19th Century, persecuted by the new shooting industry: the Marquess of Bute wrote an oath for his gamekeepers to swear, under which they pledged to “use my best endeavours to destroy all birds of prey etc, with their nests, wherever they can be found therein. So help me God.” Not that killing kites was anything new. It had once been such a common bird that Shakespeare refers to it repeatedly: Lear condemns Goneril as a “detested kite”; in A Winter’s Tale, Autolycus cautions: “My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen”.

The kite was so common that it came to be seen as vermin, and so the 1566 Acte for the Preservation of Grayne offered bounties for the killing of kites. Between 1675 and 1685, 380 were killed in Tenterden in Kent alone. The red kite was slaughtered on an industrial scale, over hundreds of years, across the country.

In the 16th Century the birds were often regarded as vermin

It’s been suggested that the enclosure of the English countryside also affected the kites, and while there’s no certainty about that, changes to the landscape can have a huge effect on them. The fall of Communism, for example, proved to be very bad news for the largest single population of red kites in Europe, resident on the north German plain. The kites had thrived when the plain was filled with the small-scale farms of East Germany, when differing uses of land meant a constant supply of food. Once Germany was unified, and the farms turned into giant monoculture agribusinesses, the food disappeared, and the kite population began to fall: from a possible 25,000 breeding pairs – bird populations are always given in breeding pairs – before unification to around 12,000 now.

The remarkable resurgence of the red kite began in the UK 30 years ago. On 1 August 1989, five young kites – taken from nests in Sweden as chicks, then reared in England with minimal human contact in purpose-built aviaries until they could reach independence – were released near Stokenchurch in Oxfordshire. That same summer, the first birds were released on the Black Isle – not, confusingly, an island – just north of Inverness in northern Scotland. Between 1989 and 1994, a total of 93 red kites were introduced across the two sites – the English birds taken from Navarre in Spain, the Scottish ones again from Sweden – followed by reintroductions across the rest of the UK.

The kite has a five-foot wingspan – not far short of an eagle’s

I went out to Stokenchurch on Easter Monday, to visit Helen Olive, a volunteer who has helped with several of the relocations, and who once had a holding pen for kite chicks in her back garden. We sat on a bench above her house, on the scarp slope of the Chilterns, and watched the kites, their plumage vivid in the lunchtime sun, their flight elegant and graceful despite their five-foot wingspan – not far short of an eagle’s – steering with their forked tails. One pair entered into an aerial ballet, swooping and diving around each other, then parting to climb high before beginning the dance again. Sometimes they lock talons, and Olive said she had seen birds unable to release from each other’s grip crashing to the ground.

The Chilterns population has grown so rapidly that the red kite is no longer considered in need of monitoring in the UK, though it remains protected. No one really knows how many there are, because the birds have spread and bred so rapidly. There are probably around 6,000 breeding pairs in the UK and Ireland, the vast majority of them in southern England, where it seems you can see them everywhere: around the villages and towns of the Thames Valley, above the main roads, huge, dramatic birds dominating the sky.

 Ian Carter, an ornithologist who worked with the English reintroductions and who has written several books about kites, used to scoff at the idea that they might return to London, where once they picked the streets clean. “I’m not so sure now. I think it’s quite likely. they don’t need vast forests, but they do need a certain amount of seclusion. But if you think about some of the larger parks in London, and the cemeteries and allotments – as long as you’ve got a few trees to tuck the nest away, I think it’s eminently possible.”

A view of kite country. There is one in the picture if you look closely

In the Black Isle, though, the same number of birds, introduced over the same period, has not multiplied. “The reason is that the prevailing levels of illegal poisoning were far higher in Scotland, around grouse areas,” says Duncan Orr-Ewing, who works for the RSPB in Scotland and was involved in the initial Scottish reintroduction. The Black Isle itself is not a grouse-shooting area, but it’s surrounded by them. As soon as the birds spread, they were killed. Orr-Ewing estimates the total population across the whole of Scotland to be around 300 pairs. It’s a similar story in North Yorkshire, another area where grouse shooting is common.

“That’s not one or two rogue keepers that have had that impact,” Carter says. “Now in the Chilterns you have five or six thousand pairs, and on the Black Isle it’s around a couple of hundred. That difference is nothing to do with habitat conditions or amount of food or nesting sites. That difference has been imposed by the illegal persecution on grouse moors. That is pretty shocking. With hen harriers, we’ve virtually lost them as a breeding species in England. There are a handful of pairs. The scientific evidence shows there should be around 300 pairs. You just don’t get hen harriers breeding on grouse moors, bar the odd exception. And that will only happen if a sizeable majority of people involved are taking action. If it was just the odd rogue keeper on the occasional estate it wouldn’t be possible to have that impact. The evidence is clear.” Of the 179 people convicted of raptor persecution offences between 1990 and 2017, more than two thirds were gamekeepers.

Two red kites fight over a piece of meat

Of course, not all grouse moors or gamekeepers kill raptors. Bolton Abbey, in North Yorkshire, has red kites nesting on the estate, and those who work there are very keen indeed to downplay the perception of gamekeepers as trigger-happy bird killers. “Persecution has gone on, I don’t think anyone would deny that,” head keeper Paul Wilby says. “But I think it’s over-exaggerated.”

“We believe our management of the grouse moors has a net beneficial effect for a whole suite of both ground nesting birds and raptors,” insists the estate’s manager, Ben Heyes. “While shooting might not be palatable to some, we believe the management of uplands for grouse has a net beneficial effect. And that’s recognised by the RSPB, Yorkshire Moors National Park and Natural England, and that’s why the moors at Bolton Abbey have been designated a special site of scientific interest.”

Despite persecution by gamekeepers, red kites may nest on grouse moors

And if conservationists are paranoid about gamekeepers, then the reverse applies, too. “We are under scrutiny,” Heyes says. “We are also sadly aware that are individuals out there who would try to create evidence to illustrate that landowners are persecuting birds of prey and other bird species.”

The fact is, red kites pose little or no threat to grouse moors. Despite their size, they’re weedy birds, all wing and no talon: they couldn’t carry off prey of any size, even if they wanted to. Although Paul Wilby insists that they can have an impact on grouse chick numbers, Ian Carter says that’s simply not true. “You couldn’t rule it out and say they would never take a chick. But it’s not going to be at a level that would cause significant problems.”

Despite their size they are “weedy birds, all wing and no talon”

Kites are overwhelmingly scavengers, feeding on carrion. But that makes them particularly susceptible to poisoned bait, left out by gamekeepers to control stoats and weasels and foxes, as well as the corvids – crows, magpies and the like – that pose a threat to ground-nesting birds such as grouse. The way kites fly slowly and close to the ground when searching for food makes them easy to shoot. And they can suffer from eating stray grouse that the gundogs didn’t find – kites can get lead poisoning from eating carrion containing lead shot. Most of all, they suffer from the fact that any bird of prey is seen as an enemy by so many estate managers and gamekeepers.

The deaths are sometimes indiscriminate: in a single poisoning incident on the Black Isle in 2014, 16 red kites were killed, along with six buzzards. The real problem, though, is that no one knows how many kites are being illegally killed, when or where. “With wildlife crime and rural crime, it’s often in the middle of nowhere,” says Superintendent Nick Lyall, of Bedfordshire police, who chairs the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, the unwieldy name given to the body in charge of dealing with crime against birds of prey. “So when there are smaller numbers of officers looking into combating it, and it’s happening in the middle of nowhere, it’s difficult for it to be policed. You need someone to witness the offence and say it occurred. In the middle of a forest, or a field, or a moor, probably the only people there are those doing it. And the stats play out, in terms of the number of prosecutions for raptor prosecution, which are relatively low.”

They’re not just relatively low, they’re almost non-existent. In 2017, the last year for which figures are available, there were four prosecutions relating to raptor crime, and one conviction, against 68 known cases of raptor persecution. The year before there were no prosecutions. Even when police know there has been a crime – when a satellite-tracked bird disappears over a grouse moor – there’s nothing to be done. There will be no corpse, no evidence. All the wildlife crime officers can do is search, fruitlessly.

Kites are mainly scavengers, so particularly susceptible to poisoned bait

Lyall believes raptor persecution in the UK is driven by a small number of individuals or organisations putting the profit of the grouse moors they manage ahead of biodiversity, or even the law.

“I’m not sure yet how big the network of people they have working for them and their organisations are,” he said. “It’s more than a few bad apples, but I’ve also spent considerable time with some good, professional gamekeepers who are working hard to regenerate the land, to regenerate the reputation of gamekeeping. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and I’ll be looking to work with local police forces to deal with them in any way that we can. If they’ve got the wrong diesel in their tank, or they’re not storing their firearms properly or they’re not managing their chemicals properly, then while we can’t prove the main offence, we can take the Achilles heel approach of going after them for something else.”

Like getting Al Capone for tax evasion?

Lyall laughs. “That’s the one.”

A red kite, behind, and a kestrel, in front, during aerial combat

Red kites, to mix an avian metaphor, are the canary in the coalmine of raptor health in the UK.

The reintroduction of the species means it has been intensively studied, and when the extent of the research is combined with the size of the population, it means there is enough data to draw conclusions about the problems facing other species: if x number of kites have disappeared on grouse moors, then it is possible to extrapolate how many hen harriers or peregrines might also have gone missing.

So when Jenny Jaffe observes that every red kite she has performed a post-mortem on in recent years has had some level of exposure to rodenticides, she knows it means other raptors – and other scavengers – are eating poisoned meat from dead vermin. The number of birds she sees with lead poisoning leads her to the conclusion that lead shot should be outlawed in the UK, to protect a whole range of wildlife that might eat dead game. In California, she observes, the use of lead shot was outlawed following another reintroduction programme. “The reintroductions of the  California condor were not sustainable because all of the condors were getting lead poisoning. They would go out and capture the released condors, test their blood for lead, treat them for lead poisoning and release them again. They could prove that if nothing was changed, the releases were not sustainable. Because of that California has banned lead shot.”

Recent post-mortems on red kites usually indicate exposure to rodenticides

“High-profile reintroductions aren’t just about getting that species back,” Ian Carter says, “but about using them to learn about the threats that other birds of prey face. There was funding in the reintroduction to pay for hi-tech tags so the birds could be followed around. You’d find the dead birds and study and investigate what the main threats are that the birds still face. That has really good knock-on benefits for other species.”

It was the fate of the Black Isle red kites, that sounded the alarm about the level of danger posed to birds of prey by management of grouse moors.

In Scotland and the North East of England kites are tourist attractions

The red kites are also a gauge of public opinion about huge birds of prey. In Stirlingshire and in north-eastern England, they’ve become tourist attractions. Around the Thames Valley, though they’re so numerous that some people have started seeing them as irritants all over again.

“You’ve got people who live in towns with their very small, neat back gardens,” Helen Olive says with a sigh. “And you’ve got something with a five-foot wingspan swooping down, it’s probably not ideal. There was one lady who said she had her grandchild out in a pram and the red kite came down. Well, the red kite will not take your grandchild, I assure you. You get urban myths, because they are inquisitive and they do fly low. People misinterpret that and think the kite is going to attack.” These days, she says, she gets emails from people complaining there are too many red kites around.

Around the Thames Valley the birds are beginning to become irritants again

When Emily Viarnaud, who lives in Marlow in Buckinghamshire, had her own encounter with kites, she saw the hysteria at first hand. “We were having a picnic and a kite swooped down a couple of times,” she says. “It didn’t manage to get a sandwich the first time, but it did the second time. My daughter got a scratch on her head from the kite.” The local paper, the Bucks Free Press, reported that toddlers had been “attacked”.

“It was completely blown out of proportion,” Viarnaud says. “On Facebook it went quite mad, with people worrying about their pets, and whether kites would start attacking people. It got a bit like Brexit – it was really divisive. I wish I hadn’t said anything.”

There are other stories. “Attack of the BIRDS: Children left terrified after red kites DIVEBOMB and CLAW at them,” ran one Daily Express headline; “Kite fright! Dive bombing birds of prey are leaving children terrified and even bleeding in alarming attacks,” reported the Daily Mail. “There needs to be a cull,” one parent told the paper.

Red kites are not a danger to children, dogs or livestock

This matters, not just because the red kite is not a danger to children or dogs or livestock, but because it sets the tone for future raptor reintroductions.

This summer the conservationist Roy Dennis plans to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to the Isle of Wight, where they last bred in 1780. The response has not been one of unbridled joy. A photo, purporting to show an eagle from the Scottish population carrying off a lamb, circulated on social media as proof that the Isle of Wight’s farming would be devastated by the presence of 60 eagles, released over five years. “Giant white-tailed eagles set to be introduced to Isle of Wight could ‘eat PETS and sheep’” warned The Sun newspaper. England, a country that worked so hard to kill all its large carnivores in the preceding centuries, is still not reconciled to their return.

“Just look at them!” A trio of red kites in performance

On that sunny day in Stokenchurch, as I sat with Helen Olive, I asked why she had become so obsessed by red kites. Why had she had chicks in her backyard? Why had she spent 500 hours observing them on their nests? Why does she spend hours photographing them?

She pointed to the sky, to the beautiful, rust-coloured birds circling with languorous grace and the birds diving and swooping with fighter-pilot precision. “Just look at them,” she said. She didn’t need to say any more.

Photographs by Getty Images and Alamy

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Further reading

There’s a strange fascination in large carnivores living cheek by jowl with humans. This New Yorker piece explored the world of one the strangest and most precarious cohabitations, the mountain lions of Los Angeles.

But as soon as people become too aware of predators, they want them killed. Just ask the Finns who spoke to the Guardian about their new fear of wolves.

To get the tenor of the conversation around the reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle to the UK, dip into Robin Page’s excoriation of the plan for the Mail on Sunday.