“When the kite builds, look to your lesser linen” Shakespeare wrote (A Winter’s Tale; Act 4, scene 3) in reference to the red kite’s habit of stealing washing that had been hung out to dry, perhaps something he experienced himself as kites were very common in London at the time. With the bird going extinct in England in the 1870s, this is not an issue Londoners have had to deal with for a long time. However, they may wish start heeding Shakespeare’s advice again, as red kites have made a comeback in the capital following successful English reintroduction programmes from 1989.
In the rest of Great Britain, the kite suffered a similar fate as in England. They went extinct in Scotland in 1886 and were reduced to just two breeding pairs in Wales in the 1930s; across Europe a similar pattern could be observed. This bird was once commonplace in large cities and lived harmoniously alongside city dwellers and other urban wildlife, prompting Shakespeare to nickname London the “city of kites and crows”. Such was their usefulness in clearing streets of waste and carrion, they were protected by royal degree and killing one was punishable by death.
This all changed with the introduction of the Tudor Vermin Acts. The Preservation of the Grain Act of 1532 passed by Henry VIII meant that it was responsibility of English citizens to kill animals officially listed as vermin. This included the red kite and a bounty of one penny was offered for each head. Fines were imposed upon communities that failed to kill enough vermin, so a frenzy of hunting took place.
The numbers of many species had been decimated by the time the Act was repealed in the mid-18th century, however, the red kite was yet to suffer further persecution. Game keepers continued the hunting of red kites due to a false belief that the birds took their game. Besides hunting rabbits, a type of small game, a red kite’s diet mainly consists of carrion and much smaller mammals like mice, voles and shrews.
As their numbers lessened, the rarity of kites led to their killing for taxidermy and egg thieves raiding their nests. With no protection placed upon the red kite, there was nothing to stop their extinction in England and Scotland. A mere handful survived in Wales, as they were in the “undisturbed upland valleys” of the country according to the RSPB. The Welsh population remained suppressed due to poisoning, human nest raids and shooting for decades and the myxomatosis outbreak amongst the rabbit population in the 1950s meant food was in scarce supply. To make things worse, there was little breeding success in the 1960s, most likely due to the use of organochloride pesticides.
The tables turned with the expansion of the species to more suitable lowland habitats and the introduction of Schedule I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which granted full legal protection to the red kite. Reduced hunting and improved health from more successful hunting saw a rise in the population. Official RSPB numbers say that by the “mid-1990s there were more than 100 breeding pairs in Wales, and 350-400 pairs by 2003”.
The reintroduction of the red kite in England and Scotland was a joint project between the RSPB, Natural England and Natural Scottish Heritage. Over a five-year period from 1989, ninety-three young kites were released in both the Chilterns in Southern England and in Northern Scotland. The released birds were predominantly from Spain, where the population is much larger. Figures from Natural England show that this was a success with 121 breeding pairs in England and 32 in Scotland by 2001. Since then there have been further reintroduction schemes across Great Britain in central Scotland, the English Midlands and Yorkshire.
The British population now stands at 1,800 breeding pairs according to the RSPB, a staggering 7% of the world’s population. Considering there were only two pairs in Wales in the 1930s, this is a significant achievement.
As the population has grown, red kites have ventured further from their reintroduction sites and the first kite in London since Tudor times was seen in 2006. Perhaps as the recovery continues, the sight of kites above the capital will once again be commonplace. The red kite will not be as at home in modern London as it was in the Middle Ages, but London may yet be the city of kites and crows again. Just keep an eye on your drying laundry.