Chalke Valley Red Kites
My first glimpse of the Chalke Valley was around 6 years ago, from the top of Hogware Road, on the way to Broadchalke, in Wiltshire. It’s a spot I return to frequently whenever we are back in the area and find myself dreaming of when we’re not.
Over those 6 years not much has changed; a patchwork quilt of fields still spreads out tucking in the rolling chalke downs - patterned by intricate hedgerows and scrub floored copses. Each summer spumes of dust follow harvesting tractors, whilst winters still bring frosts and drifting snows that whip up against fence posts like frothed milk.
There are a few differences though.
Those skies have changed.
Now, they’re decorated with red kites.
When I first moved here, I would catch the odd glimpse of a red kite in the distance whilst out walking, that became a couple of red kites a bit closer, then a few more and a few more. Now, I can’t walk through the valley without them passing over head.
A pretty impressive feat for a species that was once nearly wiped out completely in the U.K.
What’s a Red Kite?
Slightly bigger than a buzzard with elongated wings and a deeply forked tail, the red kite cuts an easily recognisable shape as it glides through Chalke Valley skies.
Rusty red in colour with a ghostly pale head, this bird of prey’s colouring catches the light beautifully as it haunts the sky, scouring the ground below for food.
They are opportunistic hunters, mainly scavengers that seek out carrion items like road kill. They will also eat worms, and occasionally pheasant poults and small mammals, but only if they’re an easy catch (I hate to shatter the illusion of a stealthy hunter but they’re inherently lazy – roadkill and worms are a much easier to get their talons on).
Despite their size and wingspan, to me, red kites always look so delicate in flight; like a folded paper plane, creased in all the right places to ride effortlessly on invisible thermals.
They are anything but delicate.
Ultimately the red kite is a massive success story.
At one point in history the skies teemed with red kites, thriving on waste around human settlements. Nature’s street cleaners.
Sadly this didn’t last, yorkshireredkites.net explains that as human population grew the red kites were seen as a threat to food sources, combined with more game shooting, the species were persecuted (you can read more about this here).
By the 19th century red kites were extinct in England and Scotland with a handful left in Wales.
A sorry state for a beautiful bird.
Back from the Brink
The RSPB describe the conservation efforts put in place to help the red kite as, “the longest continuous conservation project in the world.”
In 1989 a number of red kites were translocated from Europe and released in various locations across the U.K. (RSPB); so began one of the biggest reintroduction programmes in the U.K.
With the continued efforts of charities, volunteers and individuals the red kite population went from strength to strength, but despite the success of the programme in other areas of the country they still struggled in the south.
This is where the Hawk Conservancy Trust, based in our neighbouring county of Hampshire, played an important role in shaping the red kite’s future in the south. The Trust, an incredible bird of prey centre which focuses on conservation issues and education surrounding birds of prey, bred kites for release into the wild at their facility. These kites would be part of the Red Kite Reintroduction Programme – a partnership project of government agencies, conservation charities and local landowners working together for the future of the red kite.
Between July 2003 and 2005 the Trust released 12 red kites out into the wild. Overall the project was a success, with one of the outcomes being that wild kites were regularly attracted to the area (you can read the corresponding paper by Murn, et all 2008, here).
My first ever sighting of a red kite was during my work experience with the Trust (a fair few years ago now). It was during the afternoon feeding of the herons in the wild flower meadow when a forked tailed silhouette floated over above me. I remember craning my neck to watch it sail overhead.
The Trust still continues to help the conservation of the red kite and is currently monitoring populations across eight counties in southern England. You can read more about their ongoing project here.
The raptors in the U.K have gone from being a threatened species to a green conservation status – a species of least concern.
Red Kites in The Chalke Valley
The red kites here in the Chalke Valley are seemingly thriving, as is the case across the rest of Wiltshire, with numbers steadily increasing. There is obviously something about the Wiltshire countryside that is appealing to these strengthening scavengers; so, what is it?
A quick chat with Nick Adams, county recorder at the Wiltshire Ornithological Society, and I soon know why.
Wiltshire has an excellent availability of food. There are plenty of opportunities for red kites to scavenge; the winter yields a high number of roadkill gamebirds released for the numerous shoots in the area. And working farm practices expose worms and turf out small mammals and birds from their hiding spots in grass and hedgerows. Easy meals all round then!
The Chalke Valley has all these things in abundance; plenty of shoots and lots of agricultural land being worked on a regular basis. Combine that with plenty of hedgerows and tall trees that provide perfect perches to scour the surrounding landscape for feeding opportunities, it’s no wonder they’re starting to make themselves at home.
So, when I’m standing on top of my Hogware hill, staring out across the valley, my eyes picking out the wheeling and turning shapes mastering the sky and claiming it for their own, I’m not just watching a red kite.
I’m watching a success story. A story of destruction, re-introduction and success. I’m watching a bird that has been brought back from the brink; a bird that is not just recovering but thriving.
I hope that the next time we are back in the valley that there are even more, that numbers continue to increase until the skies are thick with them.
I’m confident that they will at least stay as constant as the Chalke Valleys landscape, that they will remain, with their paper plane flight above those rolling fields for as long as I return to this spot.