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Locals in uproar over devastating impact of red kites across the Chilterns

Across the Chilterns residents are in uproar as the increasing number of red kites continue to devastate rare wildlife. Even children have been attacked by in the area by the birds of prey.

According to the RSPB, this has been a conservation success story. But at what cost?

[Two year old toddler attacked last year by red kite in Henley]

Writing in The Spectator, Paul Sargeantson, who lives in the Chilterns, explained: “I own a grass farm in the Chilterns which provides grazing for horses and haymaking. It also provides habitat for hares, skylarks, lapwings and field voles (the staple diet of my resident pair of barn owls) – which is why I am so set against the red kites.

Between 1989 and 1994, red kites from Spain were imported and released into the Chilterns by the RSPB and Natural England. The population here had dwindled and the RSPB describes the reintroduction programme as ‘one of the UK’s biggest conservation success stories’. But it’s only a success story if you ignore the devastating effect red kites have had on other wildlife.

The RSPB assures us that red kites feed mainly on carrion and earthworms and, as opportunists, the occasional small mammal. While it is true they eat roadkill, earthworms and livestock afterbirth, they also destroy a great deal more than just the ‘occasional’ mammal.

Red kites predate all livestock of a weight they can carry away. This includes field voles and dormice, but also the chicks of ground nesting birds such as skylarks, lapwings, grey partridges and curlews, all of which are on the RSPB’s Red List of great conservation concern. I have witnessed kites taking songbird fledglings from my garden.

When I’m haymaking, the red kites target the leverets. Haymaking is precarious and timing is important. Within five minutes of starting to mow there will be 20-plus red kites circling overhead, intending to hoover up any birds or mammals disturbed by my work. Long-term, the owl’s safety will be jeopardised if there is a shortage of prey.

The red kites threaten my chickens and geese too, which causes great distress. Chickens are wonderfully secretive and will disappear to sit on a clutch of eggs safely concealed in a barn, only to reappear three weeks later with a large brood. Twenty years ago, my hens could rear their chicks to adulthood, which gave my late wife and me immense enjoyment. Now, red kites will snatch the chicks on the day they emerge.

Five years ago my goose’s 11 newly hatched goslings were attacked and carried off by six kites, despite my best efforts. It was heartbreaking. Mallard ducks used to nest and rear their young on our pond. They have realised that their efforts are futile and given up.

The sight of majestic red kites soaring above the Chiltern Hills is captivating. No wonder that photographers visit the area for shots of this beautiful bird. And the RSPB is right to say that they’re part of Britain’s history. In Victorian London, when the skies were crowded with kites, they acquired the sobriquet of ‘Hat Birds’ for their propensity for snatching fur hats from pedestrians.

But as a result of their reintroduction, other bird species have been more than decimated. In my youth I would see 200 lapwings trailing behind a plough in the autumn. They have all but disappeared from lowland areas of England and instead we now see as many as 90 red kites hoovering up invertebrates behind a plough or cultivator.

Some 40 million birds have disappeared from the UK over the past 50 years. It’s a catastrophe. Farming methods are usually blamed: the use of agrochemicals, fertilisers and drainage, the abandonment of crop rotation and the increase of pastureland leading to lower food and habitat availability for birds to rear chicks. But if our birds are facing so much pressure, why reintroduce another predator and more competition for dwindling resources?

The same competition for food caused the demise of the red squirrel. Since the introduction of grey squirrels from America in the 1870s, the population of red squirrels is estimated to have dropped from 3.5 million to 140,000. Like grey squirrels, the red kite takes the food needed by other birds before they can get to it. The introduction of new species – and the reintroduction of formerly extinct species – to the UK should have been thoroughly researched before being approved. The grey squirrel is a good example of the potentially catastrophic consequences of getting this very wrong.

Figures on the RSPB’s website suggest that the kite population has been growing by 14 per cent a year. If that trend continues, the present Chilterns population of 2,000 will become 5,000 by the end of the decade and pass 10,000 by 2035.

A severe cull of red kites was needed ten years ago, but of course it’s impossible to do this. Red kites are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it is an offence to harm or kill them. Nonetheless, there simply isn’t sufficient carrion to feed so many birds, as well as other carrion-eaters such as crows. The red kites and other carrion feeders will have to turn increasingly to wildlife that is already on the brink of extinction.”


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