Red Kites, Latin name Milvus milvus, were once commonplace in suitable habitat throughout England, Scotland and Wales. As well as in the open countryside, they were to be found around human settlements where they fed on waste – a feature of their behaviour which brought them protection by Royal Charter in the 15th Century. However, with the passage of time, improvements in hygiene arrangements reduced this source of food, alongside which they became increasingly persecuted. In company with many other species of bird and mammal, they were seen as a direct threat to food supplies at a time when the human population was growing. Further pressures from game shooting interests resulted in them becoming extinct in England and Scotland around 150 to 200 years ago, a handful of pairs managing to survive in Wales. (NB: It is worthy of note that a significant number of pairs of kites now breed on shooting estates, indicating a considerable present-day change in attitude towards them).
After a number of years of protection, with very little to show for the efforts of those involved, the Welsh Red Kite population started to show a steady growth in numbers. However, as it was likely to be a long time before they would recolonise suitable habitat outside Wales, a programme began in 1989 to reintroduce them into England and Scotland. Over a period of several years, more than 90 young birds were released in each of the initial reintroduction areas, on the Black Isle near Inverness and in the Chilterns in Oxfordshire/ Buckinghamshire. The Scottish birds were sourced from Scandinavia, whilst those released in England came from Spain. They were taken from wild nests at an age of 4-5 weeks. They were kept in large pens, from which they were released at around 8 weeks old, having been fed on a diet of carrion-similar to what their parents would have provided for them in the wild. These initial releases were so successful that further projects were established in other areas, whilst young birds were still available from the donor populations. The Yorkshire Red Kite Project was the fifth in this sequence and began at Harewood Estate in West Yorkshire in 1999. By this time, the newly established Chilterns population had been so successful that, up to 2003, it was able to supply a total of 68 young birds for release in Yorkshire. This figure was supplemented by an older rehabilitated bird, also from the Chilterns, and an untagged bird of unknown origin, both of which arrived in late 1999.
It is a salutary thought that Red Kite numbers have plummeted in some parts of Europe, especially Spain. It is fortunate that the timing of the initial English releases preceded the onset of this problem otherwise the Spanish authorities might not have allowed the relocation of some of its young birds to kick-start the now burgeoning population here.