When the Kite builds... Why and How we restored Red Kites across Britain
by Dr Mike Pienkowski (Chairman of the Red Kite Project Team from its establishment in the 1980s to 1995)
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The proceeds from the sale of each book go towards UKOTCF’s charitable conservation activities. Published March 2023.
In 2020, looking back over more than 30 years of the project, RSPB described the Red Kite project as “the biggest species success story in UK conservation history!”, noting also: “The Red Kite introduction project has been a fantastic example of conservation in action and is the result of really effective partnership working, which we’re proud to be part of. It’s been amazing to see a species once persecuted to near extinction in this country, brought back and welcomed by local communities, with local economies reaping the dividends of the return of this iconic species. In the 1980s, anyone wanting to see a Red Kite had to make a special pilgrimage to a handful of sites. Today it is a daily sight for millions of people. In a few short decades we have taken a species from the brink of extinction, to the UK being home to almost 10% of the entire world population.”
English Nature’s Chairman, Tony Juniper, said “Thanks to this pioneering reintroduction programme in the Chilterns, increased legal protection and collaboration amongst partners, the Red Kite stands out as a true conservation success story. The flagship Red Kite reintroduction project paved the way for further species re-introductions, helping to reverse the historic deterioration of our natural environment and our precious species that inhabit it.”
JNCC, said: “Thirty years ago the reintroduction of a lost species was a radical act. Thanks to pioneering projects like the Chiltern Red Kites, it is now a standard tool in the nature conservation toolkit.” But the project’s success was a close-run thing.
In the Middle Ages, Red Kites were common sights across the British countryside and cities, where they kept the streets clear of carrion – and were frequently mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. Later changes in attitude led to their extermination in England, Scotland and Ireland and reduced to a tiny population in Wales. They were one of only three globally vulnerable bird species occurring in Britain.
- Is by the Chairman of the experimental project to reintroduce kites to England and Scotland.
- Describes why the decision was taken and how it was implemented, with international help.
- Examines the success of the experiment, despite many challenges, leading to expansion.
- Follows the spread across Britain and to Ireland.
- Explores the outcomes, not just for Red Kites, but the example for other species, the fight against illegal persecution and on public attitudes.
The book is hardback, over 280 pages with colour throughout including over 290 photos and over 40 other illustrations.
Extracts from independent reviews
Dr Mike Pienkowski is a former Chief Ornithologist and then Assistant Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council and subsequently the first Director of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee as well as a range of significant roles in nongovernmental organisations. He was the chair of the group who planned and executed the reintroduction of this remarkable bird into those parts of the UK from which it had been missing for at least a century and a half. He is thus well equipped to tell this story in some detail and with some authority. The author sets himself the task of writing an accurate and readable account of two decades of work and he succeeds. … this is not a slightly hazy recollection of what happened but a detailed documented and well illustrated telling of the story. This is definitely a readable account with well-chosen graphs and tables, and a wealth of photographs of the birds, localities and people involved.
Unless you were there, back then, you might glance up at a Red Kite with pleasure and think that the process of bringing them back was easy and non-contentious. Not so! Not remotely so! There were those who prophesised that Red Kites would wipe out lots of important and endangered species (they haven’t), eat loads of Pheasants (they eat a lot that have already been killed by motorists) and those who said that this expensive project would suck money away from better conservation causes. On the last point, the relatively small amount of money spent has provided a massive return on investment and secured a greater, but also more visible, conservation legacy than other alternative avenues of spend. Even some birders were against the project because the released Red Kites wouldn’t be ‘real’. Tell that to the generations of young people growing up with magnificent Red Kites as part of their wildlife normality today.
The author of this book was a leading figure in bird conservation and wildlife conservation back in those days, and is still making important contributions now. He was not universally loved, nor did everyone always agree with him, but this book reminded me of his enormous contribution (and not because he bigs himself up in the book, he doesn’t). This book, long awaited, is an account of one area where he made a difference, and a very significant difference it has been. It also describes a time when statutory sector conservation staff were leaders – and that is rarely the case these days.
By the last quarter of the 20th century, despite expense and energy, it was obvious that the Welsh population of the red kite would not, could not, expand into what historically had been its range in this island. Today the UK is home to around 10 per cent of the world population of red kites and is now helping other countries by donating chicks.
The most extraordinary aspect of this project that shines through is the scale of its ambition. Previously avian re-introductions had been small, piecemeal and mixed; most failed. Rarely has conservation come out of the shadows and pushed through to such stunning results as When the kite builds… demonstrates. Partly, this came about by a change in culture. Ironically, that change was the result of some of the most upsetting, enraging, duplicity unconnected to the red kite story but laid out here with a refreshing directness (or as close to the whole truth that the skewed law of the land allows).
In fact, this book shows how much ground has been traversed since those days; the acknowledgements are packed with names across the entire spectrum of UK and Irish institutions, political and civic organisations, legal and military, commercial and individual supporters who willingly rallied to Mike Pienkowski’s standard. This marks a sea change in our shared public life. The mobilisation of multiple constituencies it represents, handled well, is enormously significant for the future of nature conservation in these islands.
When the kite builds… can be truthfully described as ‘lavishly illustrated’ – and some! Many fine photographs and maps in colour, well presented and data easily referenced. Precise and authoritative, it is never unreadable even at its most technical, adeptly folding together several strands – complex negotiations and resource management – that gives the general reader a clear view.
This book will, I am sure, inspire a new generation.
Barry Larking (ECOS, the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists: https://www.ecos.org.uk/book-review-when-the-kite-builds/)
If you are interested in conservation and reintroduction, this book provides a much wider knowledge base than just Red Kites, and is a great in-practice example of how these projects work, and the dedication required to pull them off.
When the Kite Builds provides such a wide breadth of knowledge and history that I truly don’t see how this book wouldn’t be enjoyed by any reader.
Antonia Devereux (WILD Magazine – Students for sustainability, https://wildmag.co.uk/2023/02/27/when-the-kite-builds-book-review/)
This wonderful book has been dedicated to the amazing team of people who have helped restore Red kites into the countryside of Britain. My heart is drawn to the care and attention this team took to rewild chicks into UK territory. (http://blog.theeconews.co.uk/the-book-on-the-full-story-of-the-restoration-of-red-kites-across-britain-and-ireland/)
When the Kite Builds is a truly inspirational account wonderfully illustrated, of how the Red Kite was saved from near extinction in the British Isles. It is a truly uplifting story and a must read for all concerned with our environment today. The book then goes on to discuss the hot topic of reintroducing wild boar, lynx and wolves to Britain. Fiona Middleton (April 2023, Amazon)
When do you get the chance to give to charity by buying a book? This one covers the whole of the reintroduction of Red Kites … (with birds now heading back to Spain, from where they were reintroduced). Mike Pienkowski, as the lead in this programme, has done a fantastic job not just for the birds, but also in his writing about one of the world’s most successful reintroductions, which led to many more such schemes, elsewhere. There is so much detail and colour pictures throughout, many taken by Mike. This is a fascinating and informative read. John Miles (Bird Watchng Magazine, June 2023)
The reintroduction of the Red Kite to parts of the United Kingdom is arguably one of the greatest conservation success stories of recent times. It has been estimated there are now around 6,000 breeding pairs, which represents at least 15% of their European and world population… Mike Pienkowski is well placed to document how this ground-breaking conservation project emerged and developed. Lessons have been learned on how various obstacles were overcome and best practice approaches that have proved useful for reintroductions or translocations of other raptors in the UK and abroad… Pienkowski’s access to previously unpublished NCC records of the early deliberations concerning the programme make particularly interesting reading. I recommend this book for any with an interest both in raptor reintroductions in general and as an important historical reference point for Red Kite conservation in particular across the UK and Europe. Duncan Orr-Ewing (Scottish Birds, June 2023)
Mike Pienkowski was pivotal in setting up the Red Kite reintroduction programme in the late 1980s, and chaired the group overseeing the initial, experimental stage of the project. His book deals with all aspects of the work, from early discussions about whether it would succeed (many thought not) to the practicalities of establishing a team, choosing the first release sites and then collecting, rearing and releasing the birds. His photographs span several decades, showing the first nestlings to be imported, as well as free-flying individuals and birds at the nest in England… the work has helped a wide range of species. It has generated positive publicity and increased public interest in kites and in conservation more broadly. Lessons from the kite work have been applied to restoration projects involving a whole suite of animals, some of which are described. Ian Carter (British Wildlife, May 2023)
This is a comprehensive account of the science behind the reintroduction of the Red Kite to England and Scotland, but written with very gentle humour, and so easy to read. I learnt quite a few things, including that the change in public attitudes, especially gamekeepers, was important for the survival not only of the Kite, but also other species of raptor. It is also an engaging personal account from the man who co-ordinated the whole project. The book is full of photographs of Red Kites behaving in different ways, many of them taken by the author. Treat yourself or give it as a present, or both! J. Middleton (May 2023, Amazon)
Amongst this wealth of detail, the author lays the ground for how any kind of reintroduction should be evaluated. By including copies of some of the preparatory documents that were put together, and referring to other reintroductions, he shows how the pros and cons must be considered… The collection and release of the young Red Kites is described across two chapters, with plenty of fascinating insight backed up with photographs taken at the time. I found this section of the book particularly interesting, especially the initial results from the releases in England and Scotland… The growth since then has been amazing and, where I study Red Kites in Hampshire, I estimate there are now around 500 pairs… The section on education and public awareness was interesting, as many of us now see Red Kites every week – if not every day. The chapter on operational delivery reveals the challenges of working for a government agency that is under attack, and the author’s frustrations are clear. This lengthy passage makes quite hard reading, and includes a fair amount of politics, but also details of the actual results… To have Mike Pienkowski’s personal account of how everything happened provides not only a unique insight into the world of reintroduction but also how government agencies approach such projects. For those who want to start a reintroduction programme, this has to be essential reading. Interestingly, many of the current reintroductions are being managed by private individuals under a general umbrella of legislation, but with personal funding. This is a useful summary with detail that cannot be found in print elsewhere… Keith Betton (British Birds 116:472-473, August 2023)
How to restore nature – lessons from a major UK project: I should first declare an interest – Mike Pienkowski was my boss in NCC/JNCC for a while and I get a very brief mention in this book. The book describes in full detail the stunningly successful “experimental” reintroduction of red kites to England and Scotland. It is based on contemporaneous records that capture many of the nuances of the project, and not (in contrast to some works) on the memories alone. It is written in a positive sense – supporters of the project are named, but detractors or obstructers are not named. I remember some of the debates at the start of the reintroduction project, and many of my memories are correct, but some are not – it was good to be put right. This made me reflect on the nature of historical writing – just how many projects, such as this, can be now described in detail? I guess not many – Mike has obviously managed to retain copies of the relevant paperwork that would not be available to many – the paperwork around the major NCC/JNCC project that I was involved in was all thrown out during an office move some years ago, when the instruction was to only retain essential paperwork (and that was put in a remote secure store that subsequently flooded!). I hate to think about projects conducted in the electronic paperwork age…
The book goes beyond the red kite project to look at lessons learned and applied elsewhere in the UK – not only the past but the possible future. I found the examination of each of the five objectives of the project in terms of outcomes very useful too – I do not know anyone who has not marvelled at red kites twisting and turning over their heads – and that is not just bird-watchers – the project and its follow up has enhanced human life in the UK as well as providing a very healthy contribution to the world red kite population. Arguably the project helped change attitudes to the persecution of birds of prey – many species have seen reductions in persecution, but sadly hen harriers may well disagree.
I would recommend this book to anyone (globally) interested in larger-scale projects to enhance nature – there are important lessons here in the hurdles that may well be placed in the way. It would also be of interest to those interested in how active nature conservation actually works. Congratulations to Mike on getting the book written, and a big “well done” to all those involved in making the project work. Mark Tasker (NHBS, August 2023)
This book begins by reminding us how ubiquitous these birds were in early times with their role as scavengers evidenced by the quote “when the kite builds look to lesser linen”, from A Winter’s Tale Act 4, Scene 3, William Shakespeare. This explains the book’s title and it includes many photos of kite nests decorated with odd items including pillaged underwear. The introduction provides historical background, with the interesting fact that red kites were the first birds to be protected, due to their role in environmental cleansing, with killing one a capital offence. This situation was reversed in the mid-1600s, beginning a long period of persecution that has continued almost to the present day. The rationale for the Red Kite introduction initiative was not simply to restore a species lost to most of the UK but rather due to concerns regarding the viability of the global
population, with increasing distribution considered as a conservation priority to increase species resilience. Despite the small remnant population in mid Wales this was plagued by very low breeding productivity combined with persistent egg collecting making spread highly unlikely.
The key characteristic of this book is the level of detail. Extracts from meeting notes are provided enabling the reader to see just how seriously all aspects of this introduction were considered, from examination of the requirements for success based on the experience of earlier projects, notably of white-tailed eagles, to the handling of public relations. The description of the process of acquiring young birds, rearing, releasing, and then monitoring them is testament to the dedication of the team and has resulted in the numbers having gone from just a few dozen to over
10,000 birds in just 30 years. This is attributed by the author to successful partnership working although the fact that these imposing birds mature fast, typically breeding successfully in their second year, must have helped. Evidence of the impact for global species conservation is the dispatch of young birds to Spain, one of the original source countries, in 2022.
The politics make fascinating reading. The original lead organisation for the experimental phase of the project was the Nature Conservancy Council, the NCC. This was dissolved and replaced by the JNCC, with representatives from Wales, Scotland and England followed, overseeing operations across all the reintroduction sites in all three countries, with responsibility devolved to CCW, SNH and English Nature respectively. The
latter part of the book focuses on evaluation, repeating the assertion that it is far more important to prevent loss of species and habitats than to take heroic steps to reinstate them. The author cautions against well-meaning but inappropriate reintroductions, with discussion of the impact of changes in agricultural practice on likely success. Additional benefits from the successful kite project have been greater acknowledgement of the effects of poisoning, both direct (intentional) and unintentional, introduction of specific funding allocation for species recovery programmes, and greater public awareness of these magnificent birds of prey. Despite this the author considers that saving the Flow Country from afforestation a more significant contribution to nature conservation, with peatlands and coastal wetlands in the long term more important than kites. Altogether
a fascinating read with many excellent photographs. Hopefully those involved in current reintroduction projects will be able to learn from this
book and provide similarly detailed accounts and evaluations in future. However, as an ecologist I am led to wonder what the effect of 10,000 of
these large, hungry, long-lived birds has on other species, both on prey and indirectly by competing for resources. This is something that needs to be carefully considered in all reintroduction projects. Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM in practice 121: 81-82, September 2023)
This is a welcome book on the restoration of the Red Kite in the UK. It details its recovery in forensic detail, giving a blow-by-blow account of the project. Its author, Mike Pienkowski (former Nature Conservancy Council, Head of Ornithology Branch, and later Assistant Chief Scientist), is well-qualified to write this book since he was the chair (1987–1995) of the group that planned and implemented the restoration. The recovery was initially a collaboration between the NCC and the RSPB although many other organizations and individuals contributed: the acknowledgements section in the book covers four dense pages. The main bulk of the book is on the intricacies of delivering the project and the results of the reintroductions. There is good detail on population biology and movements, which is summarized in clear tables, graphs and maps. We also get a smattering of autobiographical details giving us a glimpse of the man, his history and passions. This book is a clearly written cornucopia of detail – obscure, useful and critical – that illustrate the complexities of the project.
There are twelve chapters that go through the different project stages. The introduction makes the important observation that it is individuals and small groups of people that drive projects rather than the initiatives of big organizations. The chapter on the history of the species in Britain follows a well-worn path detailing the sad history of persecution and population decline. I recall that in the early 1970s when the idea of reintroducing kites (and other species) to Britain was being proposed, it was met with great scepticism, and most professional conservationists, in both the statutory, and the larger conservation organizations, were reticent. Their response was that provided there was suitable habitat and adequate protection, then small populations would recover, and lost species would recolonise. After all the Marsh Harrier, Osprey and Avocet had returned on their own, and many species with small populations were increasing. However, recovery was often slow and the recolonisation of others was unlikely to occur in any reasonable timeframe.
During the 1980s the restoration of raptors, using a range of techniques including reintroductions and translocations, was becoming widespread. In the UK we already had the examples of the White-tailed Eagle and the Goshawk, and in North America Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles. The pressure to restore Britain’s small, and inbred, kite population, then restricted to Wales, and to reintroduce birds to England and Scotland was growing and being championed by several ornithologists including Roy Dennis, Richard Porter and Ian Newton. A whole chapter examines the pros and cons of reintroductions with a critical look at several previous and current projects. The author gives detail on the well-planned reintroductions of the White-tailed Eagle to Scotland, and a summary of the Griffon Vulture restoration in France. These are contrasted with the less well-organized releases of Barn Owls undertaken by well-meaning, but often ill-informed, amateurs. There is a discourse on other reintroductions, both birds and mammals, to Britain that helps demonstrate the effectiveness of restoration efforts and how these are now driving the wider rewilding agenda.
In 1987 it was realized that the Red Kite was a suitable candidate for reintroduction, and a project was initiated. After a review of the species’ world distribution, it was discovered that it was in worse shape than generally considered. There had been widespread declines in numbers and distribution during the 19th century and the species was still absent or patchily distributed in some countries where it had formerly occurred. The main populations were in Spain, France and Germany where the birds could possibly be sourced from. It was clear that the restoration of the species in the UK would improve the global status of the species, which in the 1980s was estimated at 17000–21000 pairs. There were several challenges in sourcing birds and there was a desire to use Welsh birds when these could be obtained without damaging the population. Due to the small size of the Welsh kite population, it would not be possible to harvest many birds: in 1989 there were only 69 territorial pairs of which 52 nested. Eggs and young were removed from failing nests, and from nests that were usually targeted by illegal egg-collectors. The eggs were artificially incubated under bantams, the young being reared under a captive Buzzard. The young were subsequently fostered back to wild kites and used for reintroduction in England. There was also an attempt to establish a captive breeding population, but this did not work since the breeding stock was unsuitable, having been derived from injured wild birds obtained from rehabilitation projects.
Most of the young used for the initial releases were harvested from Sweden and Spain. After being quarantined in release aviaries they were liberated, and thus started the experimental phase, testing the feasibility of restoring the species. Between 1989 and 1994, 93 kites were released in England, and from 1989–1993, 93 in Scotland. First year survival in England was 63.6% and in Scotland 46.7%. This improved in the second year to 90.5% and 66.7% respectively. During this period of establishing the species the birds were carefully monitored and a small number of sick or injured birds were treated and some rehabilitated. The kites quickly started breeding, with some 1-year-old birds successfully rearing young. The numbers increased although they tended to be strongly philopatric and hence their spread into new areas was slow. To facilitate a more widespread population, a further seven release sites were established in England and Scotland, well away from the initial ones. From 1995 to 2012, 628 birds were released, most of these being harvested from the already established English and Scottish populations, together with 139 imported from Spain and Germany. During the 1980s–2000s the native Welsh population had grown, with about 900 pairs in 2009, so that from 2006 to 2011 there were enough birds being produced to harvest 240 birds for a reintroduction to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In 2010 the Red Kites were breeding again in Ireland after an absence of two centuries. As a result of all this work it is estimated there are around 6000 breeding pairs in the UK, representing at least 15% of the European and world population, a project justifiably called the biggest species success story in UK conservation history.
I enjoyed reading this book, it is refreshing since we get an honest account of the complexity of a large reintroduction programme: the intricacies of Government departmental politics, interactions with other organizations (which were apparently mostly amicable) and some of the personalities involved. The book is well referenced, although disappointingly it does not have an index. The book is a rare account showing how projects really work. All too often the accounts of conservation projects are sanitized, and the facts retrofitted into a story. The book is one I shall be dipping into regularly to enjoy its content and to learn some of the lessons on the benefits of collaborations and how we can restore populations and how these can contribute to rebuilding ecosystems. Carl G. Jones (November 2023) Ibis (Journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union): vol. 166