Soaring Success

25 July 2017

County Durham Community Foundation is supporting a campaign to rebuild the population of red kites in the North-East. Peter Barron finds out how the money will be spent.

When it comes to his favourite subject of red kites, lifelong bird-watcher Harold Dobson is keen to begin with a history lesson.

There was a time, he explains, when the red kite was so common in Britain that it found its way into literature with little effort.

Shakespeare, Chaucer and Robert Burns all referenced the bird of prey, while poet John Clare used its old English name of “Paddock” to describe the kite in flight:

“Ah, could I see a spinney nigh,

A paddock riding in the sky,

Above the oaks, in easy sail,

On stilly wings and forked tail.”

In medieval times, red kites thrived in British cities because, as scavengers, they had easy pickings from open sewers and butchers throwing offal into the streets.
As time passed, the sewers went underground, the offal was disposed of more hygienically, and the kites headed for the countryside in a transition which led to their downfall.

“Many fell victim to farmers attempting to control foxes by lacing dead rabbits with poison, while others were shot by gamekeepers who feared – wrongly – that red kites were a threat to pheasant and grouse chicks,” explains Harold.
It was a devastating decline. By the turn of the 1900s, there were only ten breeding pairs in the UK – a small colony in Wales – and it looked like the final chapter for the birds of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Burns and Clare.

But help was on the way, albeit not until 1989, when it was decided by various bodies, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to try to reintroduce red kites across the UK. Projects across the country were launched, including a particularly successful initiative in the Chilterns, where chicks were imported from Spain, and another in the Black Isle in Scotland, using chicks from Sweden.

There was enough momentum by 2004 to establish five-year campaigns in other parts of the country, including the Derwent Valley, in the North-East.

The Northern Kites Project – funded by the RSPB, English Nature, Natural England, National Trust, Forestry Commission, Northumbrian Water, Gateshead Council, National Lottery and SITA Trust – was born. Chicks from the Chilterns were transported north in cat-carrying cases, and settled in pens at Gibside, before being ringed, wing-tagged and released into the wild. Twenty chicks were released in 2004. Between 2004 and 2006, a total of 94 red kite chicks were released and, in 2006, the first breeding pair produced a single chick, suitably named Geordie.

The campaign was educational, with 107 North-East schools each adopting a red kite. They were sent information about their birds, followed their progress, and gave them names such as Centurion, Rothbury Rosie, Fantastic Flying Fiona, and Jammy Dodger.

Go North East even introduced a red kite bus, chugging up and down the Derwent Valley, in ornithological livery. The red kite resurgence became part of the area’s culture and when the five-year scheme ended in 2009, it was decided it must carry on in some form. The Friends of Red Kites were formed and Harold, a retired Open University adviser manager, now serves as its Secretary.

These days, an estimated 120 red kites live in Derwent Valley but Harold insists that the Friends’ work is as important as ever.

“Kites live for around 12 years so most of those released as chicks, brought up from the Chilterns are nearing the end,” he says.

“And, although we’ve seen significant progress in the Derwent Valley, the disappointment is that the population hasn’t spread into Northumberland and the Durham Moors as we’d hoped.”

The concern remains that the birds are still being persecuted because of a perceived threat to grouse and pheasant game bird stocks, which Harold insists is a misunderstanding.

“Kites are natural scavengers. They’re not fast enough to prey on living creatures so they live off dead meat,” he says.

The Friends are, consequently, continuing with their mission: to support the breeding of red kites and to spread the word about the wrongful persecution.

Their biggest financial outlay is employing a freelance professional tree-climber for two to three days each year in early June to help with the ringing and wind-tagging process – and that’s where the support from County Durham Community Foundation comes in. The Community Foundation manages more than 200 charitable funds and this particular grant comes from the Land of Oak and Iron Fund.

From February, volunteers monitor nesting sites, with eggs normally laid in early April, hatching taking place in early May, and fledging around the end of June.

Tree-climber Mark Connelly shins up the tree, throws a blanket over the nest to stop the chicks jumping out, and then puts a kind of sock over their heads before lowering them in a laundry bag to qualified ringers and wing-taggers.

“It’s important for us to keep track of each bird’s history – the year of its birth and its location. The grant from the Community Foundation is, therefore, very gratefully received,” says Harold.
Asked why there is such an enduring fascination with the red kite, Harold returns to his history lesson.

“The Anglo-Saxon word for a red kite was ‘gled’ – the derivative of ‘glide’. It’s such a beautiful bird to watch, with its red body and forked tail, flapping its wings slowly, and gliding majestically. It lifts the spirits.” he says.

Above the oaks in easy sail, it’s good to know the red kites are among friends.