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The red kite

David Chapman / 03 December 2015

Find out how the beautiful red kite came back from the brink of extinction in the UK, and can now sometimes even be seen taking scraps from gardens.

Red kite in flight
The red kite was once on the brink of extinction in the UK but can now be seen taking scraps from gardens. Photograph by David Chapman.

On the brink of extinction

The red kite became extinct in England in 1871 and shortly after was also extinct in Scotland. A small population held on in mid-Wales and, in 1903, a committee was established to try to help these birds to recover. 

Work was done to try to reduce the number of eggs stolen by collectors but other factors such as climate and illegal poisoning also had a negative impact on red kites. 

With assistance the Welsh population recovered slowly from about 20 breeding pairs in the 1960s to maybe double that in the 1980s.

The slow road to recovery

The increase in both their number and distribution was incredibly slow. In 1980 the red kite was still regarded as threatened not just in the UK but also globally, so a reintroduction programme was planned. 

The reintroduction of red kites began in 1989, when birds were brought from Sweden and released in The Chilterns and Scotland. Further birds were released over subsequent years and successful breeding populations were established at both sites.

To further increase the distribution of the red kite subsequent reintroductions took place in the Midlands, Yorkshire (Harewood House), the North East (Gateshead), at further sites in Scotland (Inverness, Stirling, Dumfries, Aberdeen) and in Northern Ireland (Co. Down). 

The population of red kites in the UK is now estimated at 1,800 pairs and this amounts to around 7% of the global population of this species (RSPB).

Identifying red kites

Red kites are now a common sight in many parts of the UK. Their distinctive long narrow wings and forked tail make them relatively easy to identify in flight. 

Around the country many organised feeding stations have become established where it is possible to watch the kites swooping down to pick up small pieces of meat. 

There are many more less formal arrangements in which people feed red kites in their gardens, putting out scraps after a meal, and some places where the kites are getting a reputation for picking up chips from car parks and road sides.

Living in Cornwall, I am just about as far away from breeding red kites as it is possible to get in the UK so I am going to have to wait a little longer to see them soaring over my garden but I have enjoyed watching their recolonisation from a distance and I always look out for them as I travel around the country.

Read David Chapman's tips for photographing garden birds.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.