In the 16th and 17th centuries the red kite was a fundamental part of the bird fauna of the British Isles, flocking with carrion crows and pairs of ravens. So many kites nested in London and the surrounding towns and villages that virtually every church tower and spire was host to its own resident breeding pair; and spring was a signal for the washerwomen to guard their drying laundry as the nest building kites were apt to snatch the washing for nest material. Shakespeare referred to this habit in “The Winter’s Tale” when the rogue Autolycus says “My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen.”
|Red Kite in flight|
The existence of carrion-eaters in towns and villages was the result of extremely poor hygiene, but as sewage treatment and waste disposal became better organised the red kite population gradually declined - though these birds were still common in our three counties up until the 19th century. Better organised game management, more efficient shotguns and the establishment of large sporting estates all but finished them off. The red kite, with its slow flight and little fear of humanity, was a ready target for zealous game keepers and by the last quarter of the 20th century numbers had dropped dangerously low with only a relict population in Wales.
Fifteen years ago a joint project between the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council, with support from commercial interests, was set up to try to restore the red kite to the British Isles by importing captive hatchlings from a successful and closely related population of red kites in Spain. Released along the Chiltern escarpment between Aylesbury and High Wycombe, the result has been successful beyond expectation and when Martyn and Dennis visited a Garden Centre (of all places) just outside Stokenchurch they were rewarded with the sight of more than a dozen of these magnificent birds rising up on thermals in a sky that was not the most inviting.
Martyn and Dennis went to look at the red kites in June, which is the time of year to find the females on the nest. The Garden Centre had set up a webcam on one of the nests so that, even before you went out to look at the birds flying over the beech woods, you could enjoy the sight of the female feeding her chicks. Red kites are easy to see; so easy in fact that they have become a feature along the nearby M40 motorway where they tend to fly up and down the road in the hope that some creature may meet a sticky end and they can benefit from its demise.
If you know of a nature reserve or wildlife site which you think Martyn and Dennis should visit, then email them at email: