High Flying Birds, and the Appliance of Science…
We were in rural Oxfordshire last weekend, there to celebrate Luke’s Birthday. (He was twenty nine last week, and is getting married this week. Which will mark lots of sniveling and my debut as a mother-in-law. Expect to hear a LOT more about that.)
Anyway, on this chilly February Saturday we were out for a wander when I spotted a large bird of prey in the sky. Which – and I seriously surprised myself, because Pete’s the one with the binoculars and the little bird book – I recognised immediately.
That’s a Red Kite,’ I told Charlotte, my lovely Daughter in Law to be. ‘See the angle of the wings? The red belly? The deep ‘V’ in the tail…’ (I know – I don’t know where the hell that all came from either. Go me!)
So we both stood and watched as it wheeled and dipped and hovered, because, heck, isn’t that the only thing TO do? (I don’t know about you, but I’m always just a little bit suspicious of anyone who can see a magnificent bird of prey performing acrobatics in the sky and just think ‘whatever’.)
But better still, walking on, we saw another. And then another, and another… Yes, there could have been some repeat sightings obviously, but when we saw several more driving home the following morning, I was moved to wonder quite where they’d all come from. Because, let’s face it, magnificent birds of prey aren’t exactly all over the shop, are they?
And it turns out that none of this is random. Far from it. It’s actually something of a conservation miracle, because, as recently as 1900, the Red Kite (which is up there with the best ‘woweeee!’ bird types) was almost extinct in most of Britain. Actually, it was. Go to England or Scotland prior to 1989, and you’d no more see a Red Kite than a Dodo. And that’s because (hard to imagine, this) it has been persecuted by humans for centuries.
It wasn’t ever thus. Back in medieval times, it was considered a valuable cleaner of ye olde thoroughfares, and, as such, protected by law. Slay ye a Red Kite, as I believe the legislation went, and be advised, sir, that thou woulds’t have an appointment with the gallows!
But, humans being fickle, this did not endure. By the modernist mid 1600s it was a very different kettle of fish, as the Red Kite (now so numerous as to be scavenging in pots and pans as well as kettles) became seen as a menace – like rats, say, or Justin Bieber fans (JOKING) – and began to be slain with impunity, right across Europe.
Which rendered it extinct, pretty much, as I said. Except in one place. A special place. A place with lots of hills and mountains. A place of incomparable rugged beauty, and lots of sheep.
No, not New Zealand, silly – it was Wales! Yes, a remote pocket of mid-Wales was the Red Kite’s last stand, being home to the only remaining 40 British birds, and still persecuted, of course – here an egg thief, there a taxidermist – because they were obviously now so rare. And, worse than that, was that it turned out, once they analysed the DNA, that they were the spawn of a single (and presumably knackered) female.
So there was obviously some concern about the gene pool. In Red Kites, of course, as in the film ‘Deliverance’. But bonkers banjo-playing birds were the least of their worries – the birds just failed to breed much at all.
Cue more urgent research, which finally revealed that, nice as the view was from Mynydd High-y-Draughty, the lady Red Kites, unlike party girls on St Mary Street on a weekend, weren’t up for it because they were just too blooming cold.
Isn’t science – come on, isn’t it? – just great? Because that piece of knowledge changed everything. And, quietly, efficiently, without so much as a tweet of self-importance, the RSPB (who’ve been toiling away at this since 1905, folks) joined the Welsh Kite Trust, Natural England, and Scottish Natural Heritage, and, having been given a bit of money, have reintroduced birds at sites all over Britain, and seen to it that the Red Kite is no longer in danger of extinction.
Which is why, when in places you’d never think to see them, you will once again – or if you’re young, perhaps for the first time in your life – enjoy the privilege of seeing Red Kites in the air.
And I think that’s rather wonderful. Don’t you?
First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine, March 5th 2016