Shakespeare wrote about red kites – but not to praise them. In King Lear, the monarch of the same name dismisses his deceitful daughter as a “despicable dragon” and later notices the bird of prey’s habit of stealing laundry in order to line their nests with the line, “When the dragon builds, watch out for your smaller laundry.” Far from having an irrational hatred of birds of prey, the world’s most famous bard simply captured the mood of the time.
“The red kite was probably the most common bird of prey in the British Isles in the 1600s,” says Duncan Orr-Ewing, director of species and land management at RSPB Scotland (our UK partner). “This was a species that thrived on the poor sanitation of the time, and we know they were common even in central London.”
There is a school of thought that the “City of Dragons and Crows” mentioned in the play Coriolanus is a reference to medieval London that Shakespeare knew in life. A London where the streets were paved not with gold but with rotting food and cadavers – perfect conditions for an opportunistic scavenger like Red Kite Milvus milvus. The species has been widely dismissed as a vermin, and indeed King James of Scotland once decreed that they should be “killed wherever possible,” but the species remained protected by law because – if this sounds familiar – supporters of the vulture crisis can stop us they were valued for their efficiency in keeping the streets disease free.
Red Kite, Copyright Ron Marshall, from the Surfbirds Galleries
Times change – and sometimes for the better. During the various lockdowns in 2020, the graceful circling of red kites proved to be a daily highlight for members of the Cambridgeshire-based BirdLife magazine team. You can’t imagine those fork-tailed raptors having completely disappeared from England at one point or another. For over 100 years.
“The red kites disappeared very quickly in the 19th century,” says Orr-Ewing. “Public attitudes changed as sports facilities emerged, the increasing popularity of taxonomy and specimen collection brought its own pressures, and bounties were paid out for birds of prey control.” A breeding pair was last recorded in England and Scotland in the 1870s, and in Great Britain the species only existed as five breeding pairs in central Wales at the turn of the 20th century, slowly growing to just over 50 pairs in the 1980s. Even then, there was great concern about the low chick production of the Welsh dragons.
Although the RSPB and the local population had worked on the species since 1905, mainly to protect nests from egg collectors, it was clear that greater vision was needed to ensure the species could thrive in the UK. Enter the stage on the left in what would become the longest continuous conservation project in the world.
In the 1980s, the red kite was one of only three native species in the UK to be classified as globally threatened, making it a priority species for the RSPB. In 1986 the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage) began to discuss the possibility of reintroducing the species to England and Scotland. Such an effort could only be considered if a species meets IUCN guidelines on translocation, which states, among other things, that the human-made factors leading to local extinction have been addressed and the birds selected for introduction have been addressed as well genetically are similar as possible to the former indigenous population. Ultimately, the proposal met these criteria and the first birds were released in Northern Scotland and Buckinghamshire in 1989.
Orr-Ewing joined the RSPB shortly after these publications and recalls that the project produced quick results. “For the Scottish end of the project and for the first year in England, the birds were sourced from a healthy and growing population in Skåne, Sweden. One of the reasons this group was chosen was that Malmö, if you look outwards, is roughly on the same line as Inverness, ”says Orr-Ewing. “These birds were flown over by the RAF, which in itself was significant – it was the first time since the end of World War II that an RAF plane had landed in Sweden.”
“We estimated that the dragons would start breeding in their third calendar year. Most started after two – and some after just one. “
The team estimated that at least twenty birds would have to be introduced annually to the selected locations in England and Scotland if the populations were to become established. Later birds were imported from Navarre, Spain. This happened earlier than expected. “We estimated the dragons would start breeding in their third calendar year, but in fact most started at two – and some with one, which was unprecedented,” says Orr-Ewing. “As soon as the population increased, we could see that they were on a bigger and bigger path.”
In fact, populations established so quickly, particularly in southern England, that small numbers of English dragons were used to establish populations in other parts of the country. Today there are an estimated close to 6,000 breeding pairs in the UK – around 15% of the world’s population – and they are growing.
Attention is now turning to the decline in species in parts of continental Europe. Orr-Ewing is an advisor to the LIFE EUROKITE project, which is developing the EU Species Action Plan for Red Kite through telemetry technology to identify species movements and document the main causes of death for the bird across the European Union, where the vast majority live the worldwide breeding population of the species. The main drivers will be known to long-time followers of our work in Europe: intensive agriculture and illegal killing. Big problems with no quick fix. Downgrading the species to Least Concern is definitely no reason for the conservation world to glide as carelessly as kites.
The translocation can help give one species a chance to fight, however, and Orr-Ewing highlights a reversal of luck that drives the point home. “There is a proposal to reintroduce the species to Extremadura and Andalusia, where they are now locally extinct. So we have the bizarre situation of red kites being brought to Spain from southern England – the country where the majority of the English population originated. “While the conservation world remains vigilant about the long term prospects for the red kite, the future for the species is bright, at least in the UK. London is a city of dragons again – and this is really something to crow about.