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Monday 2 January 2012: Kite flying

I heard sounds of small bird alarm and, looking up, saw this raptor soar over the house, its tail fork distinguishing it from the (more common) buzzard's fan. Ten years ago the sight of a red kite here would have been a wonder but, since being re-established in mid Wales, they have been gradually working their way south and they are one of the biggest success stories of wildlife conservation.

Until very recently, the red kites were on the brink of extinction. Long persecuted as vermin, by the turn of the 20th century poisoning, pesticides, habitat destruction, trapping and egg collection had reduced the numbers of this once common bird of prey to a small handful in the isolated hills of the Cambrian Mountains of central Wales. Conservation bodies, notably the RSPB, mounted under a huge surveillance operation in which every remaining bird was monitored. Farmers were encouraged to hold daily feeding sessions. Nests were guarded by a team of wardens and volunteer watchers - even a team of Gurkha soldiers were called in to help with guard duties. Public interest was aroused and feeding stations provided live observation via video cameras. The operation was successful and latest estimates put the number of breeding red kite pairs in Mid Wales at more than 250 with a range that is spreading - hence its appearance down into Pembrokeshire.
(Red kite populations have been established in Scotland and England but with birds imported from other European countries - where they are decreasing in number.)

The red kite (Milvus milvus) is named for its rufous plumage. With wings held at an angle known as dihedral (pointing up) and measuring almost 2 metres across, this is an elegant and impressive raptor, able to ride the wind for hours at a time with scarcely a wingbeat, striking terror into the hearts the smaller birds and mammals which form its prey along with amphibians and earthworms. It scavenges too and because it doesn't possess much strength in its beak it has to wait for carcases to rot or be torn apart by other creatures. It's thought to have evolved a specialized digestive system, like vultures, that allows it to feast on putrid carrion. They also snatch food from other birds and even follow the plough like gulls. In Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, Autolycus warns: "When the kite builds, look to lesser linen," because of the kite's habit of stealing from clotheslines to build its nest. In fact, kites will line nests with anything, including crisp packets - probably after eating the crisps. Generally speaking they're not gourmets and unfortunately their ravenous appetites may endanger them once again: it seems that in southern England people are feeding them on scraps; such food lacks nutritional value and creates dependence.

Read more about the red kites here or, better still, come to Wales and see them in their natural surroundings.

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