Kite flying for the birds of prey

EVEN at the corner of the eye, there is something about birds of prey, an intentness and self possession, that gives them a special…

EVEN at the corner of the eye, there is something about birds of prey, an intentness and self possession, that gives them a special presence in the sky. However busy the traffic across the hillside - rooks, ravens, gulls - the passage of a solitary peregrine or kestrel demands a confirming glance (the sparrowhawk, however, whizzing past the willows at the gable, leaves, as it were, a retrospective image: that was a sparrowhawk).

But now there are new aerial "signatures", new silhouettes to learn. The closing decade of the century is adding, or promising to add, real heavyweights to Ireland's raptors. "Buzzards stage a comeback", "Osprey nesting now a matter of time", "To have Golden Eagles again" - such have been headings in three successive issues of Wings, the magazine of BirdWatch Ireland (the IWC, that was).

And now, red kites from Scotland - 10 sightings around the north of the island last month, to the delight of the local RSPB, and one even as far south as Kerry. So, trundling my wheelbarrow between the compost bins and the vegetable beds, I keep half an eye cocked for a big, slender looking raptor with long, angled wings (with pale patches) and a long, deeply forked, reddish coloured rail. A really good look, with binoculars, should give at least the colour of the wing tag, if not the kite's actual registration number.

One of the current northern sightings was over Ormeau Park in Belfast, so that even Dubliners need not be entirely incredulous of a buzzard like bird (but, with an even bigger wingspan) gliding over their city. In its medieval heyday, the kite scavenged in the streets of London. Even today, in winter, it may be drawn to rubbish tips, where it snatches the choicer shreds from gulls and crows, or to main roads offering assorted squashed animals.


But bogs and lonely moorlands with the occasional dead sheep are much the more natural habitat for the kite at this time of year. "There can be few British birds more spectacular, more liable to catch the breath," writes Peter Davis, the bird's recorder in Wales, "than a Red Kite banking overhead, touched by the winter sun."

British - never Irish? It's one of our ornithological puzzles. A 1750 book on Cork mentions the kite as "common" - but kite was an everyday word for our resident marsh and hen harriers (like "crane" for heron), and by the time reliable bird books appeared in the mid 1900s, the kite was clearly as much of a sporadic rarity as it has been in this century. And that's odd because the red kite, which nests in trees likes hilly country with woodland meadows, lakes and rivers.

Its absence historically is made even odder by the fact that Wales so close at hand, has been the last refuge of the native red kites of Britain, common birds before the gamekeepers and egg collectors began their persecutions. By about 1900, the kites were a tiny, relict population surviving among the high, open sheepwalks and hanging oakwoods of central Wales. In the early 1930s, they were down to about 20 birds.

Even today, when, with protection, the breeding pairs have topped 100 and are spreading out into the lowlands again, the DNA of well over three quarters of the Welsh kites can be traced back to a single female in the 1930s.

Most of the red kites seen in Ireland in recent decades - generally in winter - have come from the expanding Welsh population. But the visitors to the North last month were traceable (one through a transmitter fitted to its central tail feathers) to the reintroduction project launched by the RSPB in the Scottish Highlands in 1989.

Scotland lost its kites in the late 1900s, so this project was begun with young birds from Sweden, where the population had increased dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s. There, the birds often nest on farms, and the fact that kites eat carrion and pose no threat to animal livestock has been one of the educational points stressed in the reintroduction programme.

Their appetite for carrion in winter has made kites, like buzzards, especially vulnerable to poison. Ireland banned strychnine in 1991, but there are enough potential lethal alternatives to make the problem primarily one of changing attitudes and behaviour among sheep farmers and pheasant rearers.

Even with inevitable poisoning casualties from time to time, the population of buzzards is now firmly re established in the north of Ireland, with more than 120 pairs, and the birds are making strong advances to the south. They have been found in 19 counties of the Republic, with breeding confirmed in five of them.

The buzzards seem likely, in time, to bring their soaring, spiralling flight to most of the valleys of Ireland. A much more remote spectacle, one might think, is the osprey's thrilling plunge to snatch a trout or pike from a lake. Yet osprey sightings have been increasing steadily, especially in Ulster, and the population roaming out from Scotland does seem highly likely to colonise our northern lakes within the next few years.

The revival of the ospreys has depended very substantially on providing them with nest sites: the bare crowns of Scots pines, their first choice, have had to be simulated by artificial platforms. Experience in Scotland has prompted a programme of platform building in Ireland's northern counties, both by the RSPB and, on lakes south and west of the border, by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

If ospreys, why not red kites? Yes, they kill chickens and pheasant poults - but also magpies. A great leveller, Nature, given time.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author