When red kites were reintroduced into England more than 30 years ago, young birds were retrieved from flowering populations in Spain. Now the carrion-feeding bird of prey is doing so well that English chickens – with distant Spanish ancestry – are being flown back to Spain to increase the number of ailing there.
Feeded with extinct gray squirrels and carefully checked by vets, 15 cubs collected from nests in Northamptonshire travel this week to the south Spain where they will be kept in special aviaries in the countryside until they are mature enough to be set free.
“When we traveled to Spain in the late 1980s and said, ‘Can we get some kites?’, The Spanish naturalists were really enthusiastic,” said Ian Evans of Natural England. who was involved in the original English reintroduction and helping move birds to Spain today. “The amount of effort involved in finding nests, monitoring them and gathering young is significant. It has turned a whole circle, and we are doing the same using the knowledge we built up in the 1990s to help the Spaniards.”
Reintroduction of red kites to England has been the most successful bird of prey restoration project in Europe. In 1989, there were only 42 breeding pairs of red kites fighting in the highlands of Wales. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 6,000 breeding pairs throughout the UK, the second highest national population in Europe after Germany, and 17% of the global population.
The British population is still growing and there is such a large surplus of red kites that chicks have been taken from nests in the forests of Forestry England in the eastern Midlands to other translocation projects in Cumbria and Aberdeen as well as Spain.
Nests are monitored and a single chicken is only taken from nests with multiple chicks so the wild birds continue to breed offspring and do not leave their nest. The birds are taken between four and six weeks old, so there is no risk of them being tamed or “imprinted” on humans.
Thirty birds will be taken to Spain every summer for three years in projectfunded by the EU’s LIFE program and supported in the UK by organizations including the RSPB and Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation.
Karl Ivens, Animal Care Manager for Forestry England, said: “I joked with the Spanish ecologist in the 1990s that ‘one day I will bring them back to you’ without expecting it to be true. Dragons to Spain sound a bit like coal for Newcastle, but they have been threatened there after problems with persecution. “
“From a genetic point of view, these birds are really close to the Iberian birds that still live here,” said Alfonso Godino, project manager for Wild World Action (Amus), one of the reintroduction partners in Spain, where the population has dropped to fewer than 10 breeding pairs in the southwest. “It’s really amazing that this one action – the reintroduction in England – can get a nice reaction even three decades later.”
The red kite that feeds carrion has gone back to Spain due to poisoning of animal carcasses, sometimes to protect lambs from foxes. But according to Godino, Spanish dragons may thrive again because harsh measures – including prison sentences for illegal poisoning – have now reduced the mortality of red kites.
“Illegal poisoning will never go away, but the level has dropped a lot over the last decade.”
Such was the experience in England after the Spanish red kites were reintroduced. The red kite thrived because illegal persecution coincided with an increase in the understanding that the carrion-feeder does not threaten the viability of pheasant shoots or other rural businesses.
“No one knew if they would leave the pheasants and partridges alone, but in time the game keepers found out for themselves – red kites do not eat pheasants and partridges,” Evans said. “A lot of the goalkeepers really got into the kites.”
RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing, who was behind the first red kite reintroduction program in Scotland and advises the latest project, said: “It’s about conserving biodiversity and we can never be complacent about it. The Spanish red kite population was almost “but it shows how things can take a turn for the worse without any protection. We need to keep an eye on the ball and make a positive contribution where we can.”