30 years on, Natural England's Ian Evans - the first project officer on the pioneering red kite reintroduction project to the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - tells us the story of his experience on the ground-breaking species reintroduction project in 1990.
Red kites used to breed across much of the UK, but persecution over a 200-year period saw numbers fall as they increasingly became a target for egg collectors, reducing them to a few breeding pairs in central Wales. By the 1980s, the red kite was one of only three globally threatened species in the UK.
Ian Evans: On 10th and 19th July 1990, two Welsh birds and 11 Spanish birds from the region of Navarra were released in the Chilterns Hills on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. It was the beginning of a tremendously successful species reintroduction programme, which was subsequently followed by the release of four Welsh birds and 11 Navarran birds in 1991, 20 birds in 1992 and 1993 (10 from Navarra and 10 from Aragon in each year), and finally a further 20 birds from Aragon in 1994.
After collecting the unfledged chicks from nests in Spain, and overseeing their transit on a British Airways flight, the chicks had to be quarantined in specially-built aviaries at the release site. Carefully nurtured for over a month, they all successfully fledged became proficient fliers. Even so, it was an anxious moment when the day came to release them to their new home in England. However, with the benefit of hindsight we now know that it this was such a key moment in the project.
Following this initial release, the kites started to breed in the wild from 1991, and established a self-sustaining and expanding population within the Chilterns which can still be seen to this day. For instance, if you visit Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire now - particularly near the M40 - it’s very likely you will see the iconic red kite wheeling around in the sky searching for carrion and other food.
What’s more, subsequent releases in Northamptonshire in 1995, Yorkshire (from 1999), the Derwent Valley, Gateshead (from 2004) and Grizedale Forest, Cumbria (from 2010) have all been able source birds from the southern English populations due to their high breeding success.
From these humble beginnings these first releases in southern England, its sister release project on the Black Isle of Scotland and the ongoing conservation work in Wales have helped facilitate a fantastic population recovery which today’s stands at around 1,800 breeding pairs or about 7% of the world’s population. A magnificent contribution to UK biodiversity and something which 30 years ago was thought to be impossible to achieve.
Today, Red Kites can now be seen regularly in most English counties. To be able to do this 30 years ago would have warranted a special trip to central Wales.
What was then a mere dream in July 30 years ago has today turned out to be a fantastic reality because red kites are now back from the brink and we all now have to opportunity to see them across England. So let’s celebrate this success.
You can hear Ian talk more about the project to BBC Oxford here (from 11:23am onwards).