Ian Carter and Dan Powell
Pelagic Publishing, 2019, 158 Pages
£25 Paperback, ISBN 9781784272005
Review by Barry Larking
It is possible once again to see red kites gliding overhead, sweeping on motionless wings against the sky in many parts of the UK and now Ireland. Several generations of British and Irish ornithologists since the end of the 19th century have come and gone with no such experience. The kite was extirpated by game keepers even more comprehensively than other raptors that came between leisure shooting enthusiasts and their pastime because it was easily killed. The speed of reintroduction has been seemingly swift; ‘no sooner thought of than done’. But that would be a misleading impression. There were obstacles to overcome and some remain.
The Red Kite’s Year is written from the standpoint of a success. The reintroduced population will eventually disperse to new areas. However, on the way towards former ubiquity, as The Red Kite’s Year reveals, this sumptuously graceful bird has inadvertently exposed a particular problem in our society that will not be deflected by comforting congratulations. Poisoning wildlife in the UK has been shown by recoveries of kite corpses to be widespread and pernicious. This disturbing by-product of the red kite reintroduction monitoring effort should be to alert the wider public to the illegal and reckless use of highly poisonous baits to kill a broad spectrum of our wildlife.
Last century, having not long since read Davies and Davis’s 1973 comprehensive paper on red kites in Wales (1), I found myself in what seemed a likely suitable area for red kites in the west of Scotland. I mused about using the plentiful buzzards present as surrogate parents; the birds have similar breeding cycles, food requirements and so forth. The Red Kite’s Year provides a brief but intriguing account (pieced together from uncited sources) of two such freelance attempts in Wales, one in the 1930s, the other in the 1950s, neither believed to have been successful in boosting the otherwise tiny numbers of a species notorious (per Davies & Davis ) for infertility and nest desertion. Back then secrecy and intrigue followed the red kite like a contrail. I was told by a well placed source that the ‘Kite Committee’ formed to try and defend what was left of the population was so secret few knew whom else was a member! Despite the Committee’s best efforts, by 1973 this situation was untenable; the costs of protecting the few nests and the puzzling failure rates, quite apart from routine poisoning and egg collecting, needed radical initiatives (2). Unsurprisingly, in some ornithological circles there was stiff opposition to reintroductions, linked as these were to the belief in natural regeneration.
Realistically, on the evidence of decades of observation and fieldwork, there was no prospect of Welsh red kites significantly spreading in any credible timeframe, whilst, at the same time, remaining highly vulnerable as an ‘island’ population, unable to expand or recruit beyond a painfully slow rate. Eventually, a trial scheme to introduce fledgling birds from Spain was accepted by the main players.
The Red Kite’s Year recounts the reintroduction strategy through many frontline examples and observation. Once the reintroduction began the results were beyond all prediction and rapidly encouraged other schemes across the UK, and now Ireland, to follow on. And how! I see quite frequently a huge red kite staring at me from the side of a bus that serves the route from Newcastle to Consett, Co Durham, that passes through the Derwent Valley where the birds can be seen in all their glory; though not where you might expect. Following one fruitless walk around the valley, back at the traffic lights in Rowland’s Gill two very big kites chased each other around the sanctions at head height as we waited for the green light. Red kites have transformed the prospects for a slice of post-industrial England through careful public involvement and by including leisure and eco-tourism as part of the tactics and the branding. The expansion of these birds has brought in train a string of linked social benefits and public interest to the places they inhabit once more.
Reintroductions are not a panacea for our national problems of historic decline across so many bird and other fauna. But they are a sort of riposte to ‘what is to be done?’ Something is always going to be better than nothing, as the kite example shows.
Immediately I picked up The Red Kite’s Year I was smitten. Written around the yearly cycle of survival, mating and nest selection, habitat interaction, food, growth and dispersal, it also covers history, documented fieldwork and personal experiences. Ian Carter’s text is wonderfully illustrated by Dan Powell, whose lively line escapes the pages and makes one want to rush to spot one of these impressive creatures. A book for the enthusiast, The Red Kite’s Year is certainly recommended.
(1) Davies P.W. and P.E. Davis 1973 The ecology and conservation of the Red Kite in Wales British Birds 66: 183-224, 241-270.
(2) Subsequently the Welsh population was identified, by DNA analysis, as having become over time almost completely inbred.
“Studies of Red Kite DNA, undertaken since 1987 by Celia May, Jon Wetton and David Parkin at Nottingham University, using blood samples collected by the writer, have shown that all Welsh females (and presumably males also) until very recent years were descended from a single female that survived the population bottleneck. Another female joined the population within the past 20 years, so there are now two matrilincs, though the original one still covered about 85% of the population in 1992.”
from Peter Davis 1993, ‘The Red Kite in Wales: setting the record straight’, British Birds Vol. 86 No. 7: 295-98.