The Honest Truth: Why Red Kites Fly High Again After Successful Recreation
Tom Bowser runs the Argaty Red Kites conservation project in Stirlingshire and is the author of A Sky Full of Kites: A Rewilding Story.
Here he tells Sally mcdonald the honest truth about why restoring bird of prey to the Scottish landscape is a sign of hope for all of us.
Why did you decide to write this book?
The history of the red kite is fascinating. They were once the most common bird of prey in the UK, but were disappeared by Victorian gamekeepers who mistakenly believed they killed game birds. Reintroductions started in 1989 and kites are now one of the fastest growing species in the UK. This is one of our greatest successes in reforestation. I wrote this book to tell their story and the little part of my family.
Why is a red kite so special?
Kites are the UK’s fourth largest bird of prey, with a wingspan of five feet. They have striking flame-colored plumage and forked tails. Of all the British raptors, kites are perhaps the most amazing. They’re scavengers, and since the days of the first hunter-gatherers, they’ve followed man, picking up the remains we left behind. All these centuries later, they still live next to us, still rely on us for food. Most raptors are suspicious of people, but not kites. Visit a place like ours and you are sure to see them dancing in the sky. It is special.
When and why did he disappear from the Scottish skies?
The last kites I know of were recorded in 1917 at Glengarry, Inverness-shire. Although capable of hunting tiny prey, they have been accused of predating game birds and persecuted mercilessly.
Can you tell us when and how it made its comeback and your family participated?
The RSPB started reintroducing German kite chicks to central Scotland in 1996. Ours was the second reintroduction project. My family was involved by accident. Although the birds were released on the two estates west of Argaty, this was kept secret for fear that people would harm them. Soon they began to appear on our farm. They liked the habitat and stayed. In partnership with the RSPB, my parents created Argaty Red Kites. They gave the birds a little food – just enough to supplement what they find in nature – and invited visitors. Twenty-five years later, we’re still doing the same thing.
What is your most vivid memory of those early days?
I remember when bird watchers discovered there were kites on Argaty. Coming home from school, we passed countless abandoned cars by the side of the road, their owners running through the fields with binoculars locked in their eyes! Another memory was my first visit to a kite nest. In 1998, we hatched the first chicks in central Scotland for over a century. My family would accompany the RSPB when they went to do a chick ring. These birds were beautiful – all fluffy with red feathers emerging.
What does the red kite mean to you?
For me, red kites are a sign of hope. These birds depend so much on us and our good will. We’ve erased them before and could easily do it again. Instead, they are booming, there are more and more of them. It shows the progress of our company. The environment is in dire straits, but we can make a difference if we act now. Kites are the perfect example of the positive changes we can make if we act quickly and decisively.
Can you tell us how it has shaped your life today?
From the moment she was able to speak, my daughter was able to identify a kite. She describes them as part of the family. It melts me. If the birds had set up a camp on another estate, if my parents had decided not to start our project, my life today would be completely different. It’s impossible for me to imagine a life without kites.
What’s the next step for you?
We are working to restore and reconnect habitats, plant trees, dig ponds, sow wild flowers. In the future, I hope our house is an amazing home for wildlife, an example of the good that can be done. We joined Scotland: The Big Picture’s Northwoods Rewilding Network and started working with like-minded partners of Scottish landscapes.
A Sky Full Of Kites: A Rewilding Story by Tom Bowser is published by Birlinn