When the Kite Builds…: WHY and HOW we restored Red Kites across Britain
UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, Peterborough, 2023, 272 Pages
Hardback: £29.95 | ISBN: 978–1–911097–05–1 | Link: www.ukotcf.org.uk/kite-book/
Review by Barry Larking
“I had intended to write this book 30 years ago.” So begins this account of how a success story unfolded. Doubtless, the book Mike Pienkowski had in mind then could not have been the complete history of the red kite restoration this book represents now. Indeed, his introduction includes several contemporary eulogies to the project’s astounding success from stunned participants and supporters; today the UK is home to around 10 per cent of the world population of red kites and is now helping other countries by donating chicks. Compare that figure of 10,000 birds today – to the start of the Kite Project Team 30 years ago when Mid-Wales was thought to be harbouring a mere 20 individuals, nurtured by those two stalwarts of the red kite’s survival, Davis and Davies.1
“We were anxious to run a practical conservation project informed by scientific information. … Whether it worked or not we wanted to learn why. We were also well aware that projects happen because the scientific information or justification is present. Logical reasons are not enough. The interactions with the people are the key.”2 (Emphasis added.)
By the last quarter of the 20th century, despite expense and energy, it was obvious that the Welsh population of the red kite would not, could not, expand into what historically had been its range in this island. Rumoured resistance to reintroductions was partly responsible for the slow progress of imaginative thinking. It wasn’t the case solely that landowners and rural populations had to be won over; one objection to the early reintroduction I read suggested the ‘unique’ ashy white head of the – severely in-bred – Welsh red kites would be lost through adulteration. I surmise a lot of the toing and froing that accompanies any such undertaking that involves male conservationists has been omitted from this account, if indeed such happened.3
There is much however of precisely the opposite in the accounts of negotiations with landowners and managers, Swedish and Spanish colleagues and British Airways, the RAF and loads of ‘networking’ amongst several official bodies. These chapters make for pleasurable reading at its best, anecdotes and all. There is even a very helpful measured drawing of how to build your own Kite Release Cage, should the need seize you.
However, the most extraordinary aspect of this project that shines through is the scale of its ambition. Previously avian re-introductions had been small, piecemeal and mixed; most failed.4 Rarely has conservation come out of the shadows and pushed through to such stunning results as When the kite builds… demonstrates.
Partly, this came about by a change in culture. Ironically, that change was the result of some of the most upsetting, enraging, duplicity unconnected to the red kite story but laid out here with a refreshing directness (or as close to the whole truth that the skewed law of the land allows) by Mike Pienkowski. The chapter entitled The challenge of the Government’s destruction of the Nature Conservancy Council goes further than previous accounts – though I would like more of what many know to be made public – of how the NCC’s own Scottish Advisory Committee, packed with landowners and their stooges, fought the late Derek Ratcliffe over ploughing to destruction the internationally outstanding Flow Country to plant hugely lucrative forestry tax dodge schemes that benefitted their own better class of scroungers. Who needs enemies?
This chapter seems out of place. Why is it there? What does it have to do with red kites? In a perfect example of unintended consequences. A collection of toadies lost a battle – who could have won against national treasure Magnus Magnusson helicoptering over that beautiful wild landscape intoning against its violation on peak time television? They were stupid to try and win. An unsuspected growing awareness of the significance of the natural world in the public came onside and the Scottish Advisory Committee had to surrender gracelessly – and then privately insist on breaking up the Nature Conservancy Council into more manageable bits. Revenge!
It was about this time the old guard shot its bolt and a new generation enthused by nature conservation in all its dimensions came into its own.5 The Flow Country battle in retrospect seems to represent a sort of nature conservation El-Alamein. It was possible to win big. No more the begging bowl or utterly misplaced trust in toffs with land holdings to ‘do the right thing’. In fact, this book shows how much ground has been traversed since those days; the acknowledgements are packed with names across the entire spectrum of UK and Irish institutions, political and civic organisations, legal and military, commercial and individual supporters who willingly rallied to Mike Pienkowski’s standard. This marks a sea change in our shared public life. The mobilisation of multiple constituencies it represents, handled well, is enormously significant for the future of nature conservation in these islands.
Nature conservation has also lost its shyness when it comes to money; restoration or buy-out schemes whose costs wouldn’t get a super model out of bed no longer produce shuffling apologies. This is what success looks like.
When the kite builds… can be truthfully described as ‘lavishly illustrated’ – and some! Many fine photographs and maps in colour, well presented and data easily referenced. Precise and authoritative, it is never unreadable even at its most technical, adeptly folding together several strands – complex negotiations and resource management – that gives the general reader a clear view. Let’s hope this exceptional achievement is no one-off.
Indeed, the final chapter (What are the outcomes?) looks at the potential to extend the re-introduction principle. Some species are making progress on their own, others might need encouragement, something like habitat restoration. But the outlook is tantalising:
“And may luck and success follow your own conservation challenges as you rise to them like soaring kites.”
This book will, I am sure, inspire a new generation.
1P.W. Davies and P.E. Davis authors of the landmark paper of 1973 The ecology and conservation of the Red Kite in Wales published in British Birds 66: 183-224, 241-270.
3One situation became so fraught that Mike Pienkowski was forced to place a tape recorder on the meeting room table to cancel out endless disputes about the minutes of the last meeting! We have all been there!
4Harvie-Brown’s papers (Held by the NCC, now I presume NatureScot) mentions an attempt to boost Osprey numbers at the turn of the 19th-20th century, releasing birds of the American sub-species. Never seen again. A release of white-tailed Eagles from Fair Isle last century also foundered. The success of the NCC’s release of white-tailed eagles from Rum by contrast was a pivotal moment, not just in the ornithological dimension but in the public sphere, seizing the imagination of a larger cross section of the public than many had anticipated.
5Among the new kids on the block at this time was BANC, brought about by graduates of the then new Conservation course at UCL. When I asked a senior NCC type what he made of ECOS he muttered “Trouble makers”. The late Derek Ratcliffe was, of course, a supporter from the start.