Getting kites flying again - Veterinary Practice
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Getting kites flying again

CHRISTINE SHIELD has been involved with the reintroduction project in the Derwent Valley

RED kites (Milvus milvus) were once probably Britain’s most common bird of prey, until they were persecuted to the point of extinction around 170 years ago.

Now, thanks to a concerted conservation campaign, culminating in a series of highly successful reintroduction projects commencing in 1989, these distinctive and charismatic birds are once again becoming a common sight in the skies of the UK.

The seventh of these reintroduction projects ( is centred upon Gateshead’s Derwent Valley, on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne, and I have been lucky enough to be involved.

The project, Northern Kites, is a partnership between the lead partners Natural England and the RSPB, and Gateshead Council, Northumbrian Water, the National Trust and the Forestry Commission, supported with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Sita Trust with input and support from a wide range of local businesses and organisations.

Ninety-four young kites were released in the area between 2004 and 2006, after which it was hoped that the population would become selfsustaining.

Surplus fledglings (one chick from a brood of two or three) were taken from nests in the successful Chilterns reintroduction project, reared on in, at the time, secret locations in the Derwent Valley and released once they were old enough. Supplementary feeding for a short period after release helped to ensure a smooth and successful transition to fully wild living.

With plenty of opportunity to learn from the previous six projects, Northern Kites has been far more successful than the most optimistic projections. Of 94 birds released, only 12 are known to have died up to July 2008, a very low level of mortality.

One released pair bred successfully in 2006, a year earlier than originally thought likely, though a pair had attempted to breed in 2005, just one year after release.

This successful pair reared a single chick that became known as Geordie, and they were good enough to do so within easy sight of a local vantage point so that a public viewing station could be set up.

Third generation

Just under 11,000 people visited this location that summer, raising public awareness of the reintroduction and increasing public appreciation of the birds. This year, the first “third generation” kites have hatched, one parent being the offspring of a released pair, the other being a bird released in 2006.

A great deal of effort goes into identifying and monitoring the birds after release, through which much has been learned about their ecology in the UK environment. The birds all carry British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) leg rings, but these are only readable if a bird is found dead or injured, so large lightweight plastic wing tags are also applied, which allow individuals to be identified through binoculars at a distance, either when flying or when perched.

The colour of the left wing tag indicates which reintroduction project tagged the bird (pink for Northern Kites), while the colour of the right tag indicates the year of release.

Each tag has a bar at the bottom, the colour of the opposite tag, so the full information can be gleaned if only one tag is visible, and carries a number that uniquely identifies the individual bird. Underneath is a phone number for anyone to ring who finds a tagged bird dead or injured.

The first generation of birds released also carried small radio transmitters, the frequency of which further identified the individual. For the first few years these made it far easier for the project workers to keep track of the birds: if a sighting of a kite was reported in a particular patch of habitat, a radio receiver enabled the team to find it and identify the individual.

Apart from research, the other purpose of identifying individual birds is that they can then be offered for “adoption” by local schools; to date, 95 schools in the north-east have adopted red kites. Through this process, the children can feel a sense of ownership of their bird, giving it a name and receiving updates on its movements and progress.

This and many other public relations projects have ensured that awareness of the birds is high among local people, who are very proud of them. There is even a fleet of kitethemed buses on the region’s roads! Careful education of farmers and landowners has ensured that deliberate shooting or poisoning of the birds is very unusual.

A transcription error in the new Animal Welfare Act resulted in wing tagging of birds for conservation purposes being omitted from the list of mutilations that can be performed by lay people under licence.

As a result, until this can be corrected in the autumn, this year the wing-tagging team need a veterinary surgeon with them when they go out … which is where I came in.

Nest sites are identified over the spring and early summer from the project team’s own observations and from reports of sightings sent in by the public and landowners.

Identified nests are then monitored until the team believe that there are viable chicks of around 4-5 weeks old. At this age, they are close enough to adult size for the leg ring and wing tag to fit comfortably as they grow, but not yet quite old enough to fledge, after which they are almost impossible to catch.

The procedure of ringing and tagging is set out in the photo captions. The whole process is carried out by experienced and licensed ringers and wing-taggers (licensed through the BTO and Natural England), my role was purely to observe to satisfy the current law.

Kite nests are generally pretty foetid places, alive with flies and maggots due to the residue of uneaten food, but often contain unusual items. The first Northern Kites’ nest was found to contain the dismembered head of a teddy bear, and one of those which I visited contained a rather noisome pair of underpants.

Kites are well-known for stealing fabric items for their nests, even as far back as the 16th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus says, “When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.” These birds may have been brought back from UK extinction, but their habits haven’t changed!

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