Red kites are a common sight soaring through the skies of Northern and Eastern Huntingdonshire. These huge birds with their almost 6 foot wingspan and their distinct forked tales have an immediately recognisable silhouette from afar and their unique red-brown plumage (from which their name derives) makes them easy to identify from up close – if you are so lucky!
These beautiful birds are both an ancient animal – one our medieval and Tudor ancestors would have been very familiar with – and one recently introduced in England – our great-grandparents would have never seen one. They are hailed as one of the most successful reintroductions of a species in British history.
Red kites are native to Northern and Western Europe, but have been spotted as far North as Finland and far South as Libya! They are monogamous, producing on average two fledglings annually. Breeding pairs will often return to the same nests which are added to each time and can become very large and unruly as a result. Though constructed mostly of twigs, kites are not opposed to taking paper, cloth or clothes to line their nests too. In his play, The Winters Tale, Shakespeare warned; “when the kite builds, look to lesser linen” – i.e. don’t put your best bloomers out on the line!
These hunter-scavenger birds live mainly on a diet of scavenged carrion (today, mostly roadkill), but will also hunt small birds, mammals and even earthworms. With their predilection for ‘ready meals’ and a range of over 12 miles it is no surprise that they quickly gravitated to human settlements, and perhaps Shakespeare was writing from experience. A symbiotic relationship seems to have sprung up where kites ate any dead animals in the street and hunted nuisance rodents, getting their fill and improving hygiene in towns and villages. Certainly they were deemed so valuable that they were one of the first wild birds to be given legal protections in a Royal Decree in the 1400’s which prevented them from being hunted or culled. Unfortunately, within just a few generations, kite-human relations drastically changed…
The harvests of 1527, 1528 and 1529 were abysmal. Over just three years, food prices doubled in England, and the kingdom of Scotland faired just as poorly. A further slim harvest in 1532 was the final straw. Kites were amongst a wide variety of animals thought to be detrimental to farming; a rather ironic belief as in reality they predated smaller animals which ate crops. In Scotland, James II ordered that kites “be killed wherever they are found” whilst in England, the “Preservation of Grain Act” passed by Henry VIII required subjects:
to kill and utterly destroye all manner of [list of animals] comyng, abyding, bedying or hauntying (their property) upon peyne of grevous amerciaments to be levied by distress of the goodes and catalles of the Offendours.’
In plain English, this meant that if you knowingly did not cull the listed animals, you would be subject to punishment by taking away your goods or possessions and the amount would vary depending on your personal wealth.
Henry’s ‘Vermin Laws’ introduced a bounty of a penny per Kite or Raven head, at a time when the daily income for a farm labourer was four pence a day! Other animals included were hedgehogs (thought to steal milk from cows), foxes and badgers (which worried farm animals) and even herons and kingfishers (who stole fish from ponds). Elizabeth I strengthened the laws in 1566 and they would remain on the statute book until the mid-eighteenth century.
As well as offering a bounty, there was an expectation of a certain amount of bounties claimed, and communities that failed to claim their quota of bounties were pressured to do so. Unsurprisingly, wildlife numbers numbers fell drastically – millions of bird and animal bounties were reported by Parish clerks throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century and many animals including pine martens, wild cats and red kites were driven to near extinction.
Even when the Vermin Laws were finally repealed there was no respite for red kites; farmers and gamekeepers were still convinced that they were harmful to game birds and young farm animals, so they were still actively culled using poison, trap and gun. By the 1870’s the red kite was officially extinct in England and Scotland. In Wales, a few breeding pairs were maintained thanks to the forethought of a collection of landowners who prevented the complete extinction of the bird from the British Isles.
A hundred years later red kites are a common sight in the skies of Huntingdonshire and much of the UK – so what changed?
By the late 20th century, environmental groups and ecologists had observed enough about these birds to see the benefits of reintroducing them across England and Scotland. The Welsh kites were thriving but not spreading fast enough to repopulate the entire country, and so a bold decision was made.
In July 1990, thirteen red kites were flown in from Spain to be the first wave in a nationwide re-release. Other kites were brought from Scandinavia and taken from Wales and, in all, ninety were released. Five years later, seventy kite chicks reared in Rockingham forest were also released, and these kites and their descendants are the birds we see today. As kites have been recorded to live as long as 26 years in wild, it’s possible that one or two of these original kites still live just across the border in Northamptonshire!
In 2016, red kites, once a ‘red listed’ species on the list of ‘Birds Of Conservation Concern’, gained green rating across England, Scotland and Wales. There are now an estimated 2,000 breeding pairs (approximately 7% of the world population) in the UK.
We will have no blog post coming out in December but please join us on Facebook for our local history advent calendar – with a post everyday at 11am!
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
Victoria Calleway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.
Barham, P “Red kites thriving in England 30 years after reintroduction”, July 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/20/red-kites-thriving-in-england-30-years-after-reintroduction
Upstill-Goddard, E. “The Tale of the Red Kite”, 2016 , Accessed 14th November 2020 Via: http://wildlifearticles.co.uk/the-tale-of-the-red-kite/
Hill, A “Tudors drove wildlife to the brink”, 2007, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2007/jan/07/conservationandendangeredspecies.theobserversuknewspages
Royal Society For the Protection of Birds, “Red Kite Facts”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/red-kite/
Royal Society For the Protection of Birds, “Return of the Red Kite”, English Nature 2002, Via: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/84009
The Wildlife Trust, “Red Kites”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/birds-prey/red-kite
Yorkshire Red Kites, “History/ Red Kite Reintroduction Programme”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via: http://www.yorkshireredkites.net/general/history-red-kite-reintroduction-programme