Red Kites on the Wing in Wicklow
Thirty young Red Kites were released into the wild in Co. Wicklow in July as the start of a programme to restore this native bird of prey to Ireland. Oran O’Sullivan reports.
The Red Kite is perhaps the most beautiful and graceful bird of prey in Europe. A master of the air, it glides effortlessly on long, finger-tipped wings, using its deeply-forked tail as a rudder.
There has only been a trickle of recent records here – for example, one appeared over Wicklow town last January and it, or another, was seen in Camolin, Co. Wexford, within days of that sighting. Such birds are believed to come mainly from Scotland.
But now we’ve got our own. On 19th July, 30 young Red Kites from Wales were released into the wild in Co. Wicklow, an event attended by the new environment minister, John Gormley TD, who heartily commended this latest reintroduction of a species lost to Ireland in the past. Sub-fossil remains from archaeological excavations indicate that the Red Kite was present in Ireland up to the early 18th century. There are several old Irish names for the kite, including Cúr, Préachan Ceirteach (cloth kite) and Préachan na gCearc, and variations of these dating from 507 AD to the 19th century.
The only Red Kite population in Britain and Ireland to survive the widespread persecution of the 16-19th centuries was that in Wales – but only just. In 1901, there were only four known nests in Wales and the population remained precariously low for many years. In 1989, when the Welsh population was still small, it was decided to reintroduce Red Kites to northern Scotland and southern England.
There has been a total of four Red Kite release schemes in England and three in Scotland. The Welsh population staged a recovery and amounted to 380 pairs in 2005. Today, due to the efforts of conservationists, farmers and landowners, there is a population of around 600 breeding pairs in Wales alone.
The Irish Raptor Study Group (IRSG), together with project partners north and south of the border, planned to re-establish self-sustaining kite populations in east Ulster and east Leinster. From recent British experience, we know that a reintroduction will afford an opportunity to showcase bird conservation issues and demonstrate socio-economic and cultural benefits of birdwatching and eco-tourism.
After a series of steering group meetings, both north and south of the border, with input from stakeholders including the RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland, the project underwent a short-term feasibility study in 2006 when international raptor specialist Prof Ian Newton, Tony Cross of the Welsh Kite Trust, and IRSG representatives met in Co. Wicklow with BirdWatch Ireland and National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) staff to assess site suitability and other issues.
Remarkably, the necessary reintroduction prescriptions and licensing arrangements were put in place for a summer 2007 start-up in Wicklow (with a start likely in Co. Down in 2008), including the appointment of a Wicklow Kite Project Officer, Damian Clarke. Damian, who is taking a sabbatical from his post as a conservation ranger with NPWS, is well known for his experience with raptors, in particular Wicklow’s Buzzards. The project is scheduled to run for five years, with an annual input of about 20 birds. Breeding should take place during the lifetime of the project.
In June, Damian made two trips to the donor area in central Wales to collect birds of 5-7 weeks of age. Thirty were procured with the excellent and generous cooperation of the Welsh Kite Trust. These were transported to Co Wicklow where they were held in quarantine for the statutory five-week period. Following veterinary checks, the birds were released on 19 July.
Released birds have unique colour-coded wing tags and radio transmitters fitted to the upper tail, to assist Damian in tracking their movements and roost sites. He expects a survival rate of 60-80% in the first winter. Some mortality is natural in young birds, but this release will also test the health of the countryside in relation to poisons. Damian is confident that, with IFA representatives and gun clubs briefed and supportive, kites will become a visible and welcome addition to the wooded valleys of Wicklow.
Tony Cross, of the Welsh Kite Trust, said, “We are incredibly excited at this collaboration as it takes us into the next stage of the recovery of the Red Kite’s fortunes. It is great that Welsh birds are being used as they must be the most similar genetically to what Ireland had in the past. It also gives the project a nice Celtic link which has gone down well with Welsh farmers who have generously allowed some of ‘their’ birds to be collected.”
Look out for tagged kites in Wicklow
Good views of flying Red Kites can be expected at various locations in Co. Wicklow over the next few months. Any information on sightings, including date, locality and identifying features, should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or BirdWatch Ireland headquarters.
The birds are individually marked with numbered wing tags so that they can be relocated and their survival monitored. The left wing has a pale blue tag with a single black letter, the right wing has a pale purple tag with a single white letter. The letters can be in capital or lower case, and each bird has the same letter on both wings. Please note any details possible and send in your records.
The Wicklow Red Kite Project is a partnership between the Golden Eagle Trust, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Welsh Kite Trust. It is funded by grants from the Heritage Council and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.