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Issue 56 - Return of the Kites

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011

 

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Return of the Kites

Jim Gilchrist finds out how a concerted effort has seen a piece of Scotland's wildlife history return

They come skimming over the trees, riding the air with the purposeful grace of fork-tailed warplanes. Once valued for ridding our streets of carrion, then subsequently hunted to near-extinction as ‘vermin’, the red kite has returned to Scotland after an absence of more than a century and, as well as cutting an elegant figure in our skies, in Dumfries and Galloway at least is proving a bird of good omen for the local economy.

I’m standing with Calum Murray, RSPB Scotland’s local community liaison officer, watching some two dozen of these handsome raptors filling the air, swirling and bickering over Bellymack Hill farm, near Castle Douglas, where, every afternoon, a rack of offal and other scraps is laid out for them. They’re joined by some opportunistic black-backed gulls and crows, but it is for the kites that, even on this chilly November afternoon, a cluster of visitors has assembled, and some serious camera lenses trained on this aerial feeding frenzy, as the birds whirl and whistle in the air.

Bellymack Hill Farm is a key stopping place on the Galloway Kite Trail, a 24-mile road loop round Loch Ken and the River Dee, a few miles north-west of Castle Douglas, established in a bid to attract people to view the expanding local population of re-introduced kites in a scenically beautiful part of Scotland all too often bypassed by visitors. The venture has paid off: last autumn, a report produced by RSPB Scotland claimed that, during the six years since the trail was established, visitors to the area had spent £21 million – £2.6 million of that attributable to those who had come specifically to view the kites.

As a largely community-based “green tourism” initiative, led by RSPB Scotland, the Galloway Red Kite Trail appears to be a signal success.

The trail was launched with funding from the from the Scottish Executive and the EU to help recovering communities, as well as involvement from the local tourist board, RSPB Scotland itself, the Forestry Commission and local businesses along the trail, while Scottish Natural Heritage has supported the red kite reintroductions and the trail since the project began.

The scavenging kite used to play such an import role in the street hygiene of our towns, that in England and Wales it was protected by royal decree in medieval times, although Scotland wasn’t quite so accommodating, with James II declaring that the raptor should be killed. According to one 16th-century chronicler, the birds would “snatch bread from children, fish from women and handkerchiefs from hedges.” In Scotland the red kite – Milvus milvus – used to be known as the gled (derived from the Norse gleda – to glide), or as often as not the greedy gled, while in some parts it went under the wonderful name of the crochet-tailed-tailed puttock. Its reputation as a scavenger has ever associated it with gluttony, and one of its Gaelic names, the clamhan, may have a similar derivation. By the 16th century, however, even in England a bounty was placed on its head and the later unrelenting war carried out by Victorian estate-owners and their keepers on such “vermin”, as well as the predations of egg-hunters, saw the bird becoming effectively extinct in England, then Scotland, during the 1870s, with only a handful of pairs surviving in some remote Welsh valleys. They’re thought to have last bred in Dumfries and Galloway at the beginning of the 1870s. Now however, there are more than 50 breeding pairs in the area. The third in a series of reintroductions of red kites into Scotland, 104 young birds were released in a forestry location near Loch Ken between 2001 and 2005. The Red Kite circuit follows roads, but with circular walks to some of the most advantageous viewpoints, while in summer an additional 14 mile stretch including the Raiders Road, essentially a forestry route, connects with Clatteringshaws Loch visitor centre. A few miles from the northernmost point of the trail, the Southern upland Way traverses the Glenkens area at Dalry.

The area harbours plenty other wildlife, including red squirrels, otters and birds such as great crested grebe, the increasingly elusive willow tit and overwintering whooper swans, widgeon and pintail, many of which can be seen at RSPB Scotland’s longer established Ken-Dee Marshes reserve which lies within the trail.

It’s the charismatic red kites, however, that draw many people to the area these days. Ann Johnstone, proprietor of Bellymack Hill farm, says: “Everybody fair enjoys this,” nodding at the visitors watching the kites’ aerobatics or squinting through camera viewfinders. “We call this the ooh-ing corner and the aah-ing corner is in the hide up there.” One reason the kites home in on Bellymack Hill is that they can soar effortlessly on the updraughts created there by the prevailing south-westerly winds. As we stand at Bellymack Hill watching the level winter afternoon sunlight catching the chestnut, white and black underwings of these splendid birds, Calum Murray tells me that there appears to be no accepted collective noun for a congregation of the birds. We refer in sometimes eccentric terms to a circus of hen harriers, a murder of crows, and a wake of buzzards ... but for red kites?

Looking on, one is moved to suggest “a turbulence”, although, given their economic spin-off, perhaps “a windfall of kites” is more appropriate.