The reintroduction of red kites to the British Isles has been a great wildlife success story, but their welfare is under threat from accidental poisoning by farmers.
Red kites were almost absent from Britain after the 19th century. But in 1989 the RSPB and Natural England began releasing kites in selected areas of the UK. Now, with over a thousand breeding pairs, their reintroduction has exceeded everyone’s expectations.
In the 1900s they were driven to the brink of extinction by farmers and gamekeepers who deliberately killed them, because they thought that they were a threat to gamebirds and livestock.
But their biggest threat now comes from farmers who kill them unintentionally when they poison rats.
Red kites are primarily scavengers of dead animals, and rats are an ideal food source. They are a substantial meal, but light enough to carry back to their nests to feed to their chicks.
Unintentional kite poisoning usually arises when farmers lay poisoned baits, but haven’t picked up the dead bodies. Although it isn’t illegal to leave poisoned animals in the open, it is bad practice and there are guidelines on the use of poisons.
Cathy Rose, of the Chilterns Conservation Board, gives some useful tips on dealing with the situation.
“Many of the problems with rat and mouse infestations arise from the way farmyards are managed. If farmers keep their grain stores securely, they won’t have such a problem. And it doesn’t take that much time to wander round picking up and disposing of dead vermin.
“We’re not trying to tell people not to poison rats or deal with the problem. But if you’re going to use poisons, follow the instructions.”
Most poisons are anticoagulant. They thin the rat’s blood, which haemorrhages internally. Older types of poisons are warafin based and aren’t as powerful as the newer second-generation ones, which are sometimes hundreds of times more toxic. So it is preferable to use warafin-based poisons, she advises.
“Farmers do the simplest of things now for the benefit of wildlife, such as leaving a small margin by the side of a ploughed field, which encourages long grass and flowers to grow, which in turn is good for birds, such as red kites, which feed on them,” says Cathy.
“There are some very inspirational farmers around, who really do farm with wildlife at the forefront of their minds. If more can be encouraged to farm with wildlife in mind, that can only be a good thing.
“The Conservation Board is keen to help support farmers and give them the information they need, to promote the good things they’re doing.”
Red kite facts
- Red kites are easily identified by their forked tail and striking colour – mainly chestnut red with white patches under wings and a pale grey head.
- Nests are usually built in trees, especially in hardwoods such as oaks, usually 4-30m above the ground and about 2ft wide.
- Red kites tend to feed on a wide variety of live prey ranging from earthworms to small mammals, amphibians and even other birds. They also feed on sheep and lamb carcasses.
- Breeding usually starts between two and three years and they pair for life, although there have been cases of “divorce” where both members of the original pair have then been found breeding with other red kites.
- Red kites lay their eggs around March and lay between one and four eggs which they then incubate for 31-35 days.
- Red kites became almost extinct in the 19th century, but there are now thought to be over a thousand in the UK, with numbers expected to keep rising.