The town seeing red from a kite invasion, writes JANE FRYER
The town seeing red from a kite invasion: They were saved from extinction by well-meaning conservationists. But now soaring numbers of the majestic birds are wreaking havoc in genteel Henley-on-Thames, writes JANE FRYER
Above the crooked rooftops, timbered gables, colourful hanging baskets, upmarket restaurants and cobbled streets of Henley-on-Thames, the sky swirls with enormous red kites.
They swoop and circle ominously in flocks, whistling and mewling, their pale amber eyes constantly searching for a meal.
When they spot their chance, one breaks away to dive for a worm, dead mouse, tasty chunk of roadkill or — rather too often lately — a bun or sandwich from an unsuspecting human hand.
‘They’re everywhere, and if there’s food, they’ll come and get it,’ says Miriam Young, 83, who lives in the Oxfordshire town.
‘The groups are a bit scary — I saw about 20 of them once and they’re not pretty, just great big birds that come swooping down.
‘It was an experiment that’s got out of hand,’ Miriam adds.
She’s referring, of course, to the reintroduction of red kites to the Chiltern Hills some 30 years ago after almost a century of near-extinction. It has long been hailed a world-class triumph and one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century.
‘We went from barely one successfully breeding pair a year in England to 10 per cent of the world’s red kite population,’ says Jeff Knott of the RSPB (which helped run the programme).
All very impressive, but some residents argue it has been a little too successful. Because lately, these scavengers, which can be more than 2 ft long, have become rather unruly.
Red kites, boasting razor sharp talons and a six-foot wingspan were reintroduced 30 years ago but now seem to be getting out of hand
So has chat on local online forums. And the letters page of the Henley Herald newspaper has, too.
Emotions are running high between two rival camps. On one side are those who loathe being overrun by these vast birds of prey (Latin name: Milvus milvus), with their impressive talons, hooked beaks and near 6 ft wingspan.
While on the other are those who adore the raptors, feeding them everything from dog food to leftover roast chicken and prime cuts of red meat —sometimes straight from their hands — and love to capture the birds’ high-speed dives on camera.
And recently, with a taste for the finer things in life, Henley’s kites have been branching out from their usual diet of carrion (dead livestock and roadkill) and days spent floating happily on thermals above the M40 awaiting the next kerbside meal.
They’ve moved on to terrorising alfresco restaurant diners, picnics, barbecues — and even eyeing up pet guinea pigs and rabbits.
And it’s not without risks.
‘As they dive down, it’s quite a spectacle. They have far sharper talons than seagulls, a vast wingspan and they’re travelling bloody quickly, talons first,’ warned one local.
Last week, in a scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the aptly named two-year-old Frankie Bird was rushed to hospital with nasty cuts, after a kite tried to snatch a custard cream biscuit from his small hand with its hooked beak and talons.
‘The bird kept coming at Frankie, which was quite scary. It just kept coming!’ said Frankie’s mother, Hannah. Dozens more locals have reported run-ins — hospital staff are seeing a surge in red kite-related cases.
Others have watched helplessly as steaks are whipped from barbecues, hot cross buns and sausage rolls snatched, children’s packed lunches targeted, and pets left cowed as their food is filched. Anna Howell had smoked mackerel pinched from her salad as she and husband Trevor enjoyed dinner in their garden.
A kite ‘swooped down and skimmed the top of my head’, she said. As she fled inside in a panic, the terrifying bird circled back for a second attempt.
They dart down in seconds, as Richard Lee, a network engineer, discovered when he put down a slice of carrot cake in an open box on his car roof.
While he popped a bag on the backseat, he heard a kerfuffle on the roof — checking the cake he found ‘huge talon marks in it where a red kite had scraped up a chunk!’
Meanwhile, in farms around Henley, flocks of up to 200 birds have been seen swooping above tractors, darkening the sky and driving out the usual seagulls as they circle lazily like planes stacked in a landing queue. Some farmers in other kite hotspots have reported newborn lambs and even piglets being swept away.
‘They’ll also take small rodents, a guinea pig or a rabbit. That would be a delicious afternoon snack,’ said one farmer.
A few locals are calling for serious action — but anonymously for now, in fear of a backlash from animal rights activists.
‘We need a cull. We need something,’ says one elderly resident. ‘We need them sorted, and fast.’
But there’s little chance of that happening, however troublesome and aggressive the birds become. Because of their near-extinction, red kites are now fiercely protected, with anyone killing them facing up to six months in jail.
Two-year-old Frankie Bird was rushed to hospital with nasty cuts, after a kite tried to snatch a custard cream biscuit from his small hand
Frankie was taken to hospital for a check-up after sustaining these injuries to his hand
To be fair, they’re hugely impressive birds, steeped in British history. Back in the 17th century they were often spotted in Central London, scouring the streets for discarded food and, occasionally, the odd piece of washing to garnish their nests.
Even Shakespeare, who called the capital the ‘city of kites and crows’, referenced them in his 1611 play, A Winter’s Tale: ‘When the kite builds, look to lesser linen,’ Autolycus warns.
It was the Victorians who nearly did for kites, hunting them like vermin and collecting their eggs until they were just clinging on at the turn of the 20th century.
Despite persecution, there are now more than 2,000 red kites across the UK
Red kites can grow up to 66cm in length with a wingspan of 195cm.
They are known to nest in tall trees, building their nests from twigs and leaves at least 20m off the ground.
At one time confined to Wales as a result of persecution, a reintroduction scheme has brought red kites back to many parts of England and Scotland. Central Wales, central England – especially the Chilterns and central Scotland.
There are now more than 2,000 red kites which are quickly spreading and breeding across the UK.
It is an offence to take, injure or kill a red kite or to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs or young.
It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the spring breeding season.
Violation of the law can attract fines up to £5,000 per offence and/or a prison sentence of up to six months.
In 1903, a Kite Committee was formed to help revive the population. But the real push came between 1989 and 1994 when, in partnership with Natural England, the RSBP and the now late John Paul Getty Jr — the reclusive son of America’s once-richest man — arranged for 13 red kites from Spain to be flown, courtesy of British Airways, to the Chilterns. They clearly loved their new home because the subsequent breeding programme took off like a rocket.
By 2002, 139 pairs were breeding in the area. And today there are thought to be well over 10,000 red kites thriving in the UK.
The extraordinary surge in numbers can be seen as part of the wider, fashionable ‘rewilding’ movement in Britain that has seen species such as beavers, otters and white storks reintroduced.
But some say these species threaten the modern balance of wildlife and, as a result, jeopardise the future of less headline-grabbing, but often rarer, species.
Songbirds, for example, have declined dramatically in numbers over recent years, for which some blame the disruptive influence of the red kites.
Beverley Higgins, 73, has watched helpless as they’ve laid claim to her bird table and seen off her usual visitors.
‘They’re so powerful . . . it’s like having an army of tanks invade,’ she says. ‘About 75 per cent of the garden birds have disappeared. It’s rather sad.’
But others, such as Jeff Knott of the RSPB, disagree: ‘There is no evidence that red kites have any real impact on other species,’ he says firmly.
And as for the birds’ increasingly bold and brazen efforts in their hunts for food — the cause is fairly obvious.
Because, despite increasingly desperate pleas from conservationists, some Henley residents (along with people in other kite hotspots) continue to leave out food for the birds — some even hand-feeding them down by the river.
‘They’re so beautiful close up,’ says one resident who admits to feeding them weekly. ‘I have some amazing videos.’
A few locals in Henley-on Thames are calling for serious action — but anonymously for now, in fear of a backlash from animal rights activists
Maybe, but many other people in the town don’t feel that way, and it certainly doesn’t benefit the birds. In essence, these majestic beasts are scavengers which need the roughage of fur, bones and gristle from roadkill for a healthy diet — not soft, processed human food.
‘Sausages and steaks and bits of mince are not good for them,’ Jeff Knott warns. ‘Don’t feed them. Please!’
They are so clever and adapt so quickly that when people feed them, they start to rely on it, forget to scavenge and begin squeezing out all the smaller song birds from gardens and parks.
And so the battle continues between the feeders and the fearful. But perhaps this is a case of too much of a good thing. Indeed, as historian Alistair Newman, 62, who counted more than 50 kites swirling in the skies above his home yesterday, said: ‘They are beautiful birds, really beautiful, but there are too many.
‘In this case, conservation has been too successful.’
Additional reporting: Lizzie Deane
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