|An illustrated guide to fishing, walking, wildlife conservation and other attractions in and around the Brecon Beacons National Park, South Wales, the country of the Red Kite|
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The Red Kite, Lat. milvus milvus or "Barcud" in Welsh, is one of the rarest British birds, although it is essentially a European species. It was exterminated in England and Scotland by the end of the nineteenth century, when only a few breeding pairs remained in Wales. These were still nesting in the upper reaches of the River Towy on Dinas Hill, now a superb wildlife reserve controlled by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). No kites remain there, although the combined efforts of the various conservation groups and enlightened farmers and landowners throughout the last one hundred years have, amazingly, resulted in the survival of the native Welsh species. Several hundred breeding pairs are now believed to inhabit the sparsely populated region of mid-Wales, for which the term "Kite Country" was coined by the RSPB and adopted by local authorities in order to heighten public awareness of the Kite itself and in order to help co-ordinate "green" tourism throughout the region.
From a distance the Red Kite is easily mistaken for the much more common Buzzard. Indeed, one of the local Welsh names for the Kite is "boda wennol" or "swallow buzzard". However, there are many differences between the two birds that are quite obvious at closer range. Although it is much smaller than the two species of Eagle found in Great Britain and also a little smaller than the Osprey, the Kite's wingspan is an impressive 2 metres, enabling it to soar effortlessly in thermals in search of prey. It is also very fast and quite manoeuvrable. Crucially different from the Buzzard are the tail, which is fork-shaped unlike the Buzzard's fantail, and the colour of the plumage, which is a very rich combination of mahogany, tawny brown and orange, set against the pale grey head streaked with black and the black/white wing underparts. The long, angled wings also differ from those of the Buzzard. When I am out fishing or walking I am often surprised at how much noise the Buzzard makes when flying, as this would seem to give its prey plenty of advance warning. The Kite is apparently much more cautious. In fact, I only rarely hear a Kite calling. Now that I have been fortunate enough to see quite a number of Red Kites, I think that I can actually recognise their flight, which seems almost laboured at times with the wings beating slowly and deeply. However, I have sometimes been mistaken on closer inspection - keep your eyes peeled and keep those binoculars with you at all times!
You will find further information to aid identifcation at redkite.net, which deals with the Southern English kites. Also, you may be lucky enough to see a kite carrying a set of wing tags. These were introduced nationally in 1998 and identify a bird's age and provenance.
To be fair, the title of my web site is slightly misleading, as the "official" interpretation of Kite Country covers an area much larger than the scope of mine, which generally addresses the Brecon Beacons National Park or thereabouts. This is because I live near there. In general, the remote valleys of South and Mid-Wales will give you the best chance of spotting a kite, although the birds have now spread to most parts of the Principality and beyond into Herefordshire and Shropshire.
Because the Red Kite can travel for considerable distances in search of prey, any visitor to Kite Country has a very good chance of seeing one - just keep looking very closely at those "buzzards" in the sky. However, it is quite at home in the sparsely-populated wooded valleys of mid-Wales, especially those cloaked in sessile oak forests. It will obviously hunt for small mammals on farmland and open ground but also takes other smaller birds and almost anything else, such as worms, frogs and lizards. In winter it becomes much more dependent on carrion such as sheep carcasses. This is frequently when disaster strikes, as a few people still lay illegal poisoned baits to control foxes, crows and rats and the Kite often becomes an unintended victim. Thankfully, this practice is not as common as it once used to be. However, the danger of poisoning is still very real and many kills are reported annually.
The very best places to see the Red Kite are the various centres operated under the auspices of the Kite Country scheme. These are interpretative centres comprising various exhibits as well as live or recorded CCTV coverage of Kites, sometimes in or near their nests. You can find these centres in the following locations:
Of these, only Dinas, Llanddeusant and Llandovery fall within my "Kite Country", although the others are only a fairly short and very beautiful drive away. You simply must go to Gigrin Farm or Llanddeusant which are quite different for the fact that food is put out at a precise time every day, attracting Kites, Buzzards and Crows from the surrounding forests. This is quite a spectacle, as the ensuing melee takes place quite close to some specially built hides, enabling you to see all the action and to take some excellent photographs. To get to Gigrin just follow the River Wye North to Rhayader, where you will find good signs. Whilst you are there, try to go and see the famous Elan Valley dams, as the hills around the reservoirs there are often good places to see the Red Kite. The scenery is very nice too and there are plenty of waymarked trails.
The photo shown at right of feeding kites taken at Gigrin Farm in February 2013 by my friend Ray Pletts shows most dramatically how the population of red kites has increased over the years. When I first visited Gigrin in the late 1990s the first birds to take the scattered food were crows, then the buzzards would move in. The Red Kites numbered in their tens would only arrive a little later, when they felt a little more confident. On my last visit, admittedly a very cold day, there must have been several hundred kites waiting for the food to be distributed. As soon as the tractor appeared and the farmer started shovelling meat over the grass they swooped down immediately, completely outnumbering any crows and buzzards, which had to be content with second best.
Much closer to Brecon, in the beautiful hills around the Black Mountain, you will find the Llanddeusant Kite Feeding Station, which is most conveniently situated behind the newly opened Red Kite Cafe and Gift Shop in Llanddeusant, near Llangadog. Scores of Red Kites and Buzzards gather here for food at 2pm (Winter) or 3pm (Summer). Check with the Feeding Station on 01550 740617. You can watch the birds from a hide but you need to get there earlier to do this. You can get a good choice of real ales, decent hot and cold food and log fires at the pub, which must be the only one in the country painted bright red.
The perching kite shown on the right was also photographed at Llanddeusant at the end of 2004. I am particularly fond of this one as it was adopted by my wife that year through the Welsh Kite Trust's adopt-a-kite scheme. It has now grown to maturity and is a regular visitor to the feeding station. The scheme is an excellent way of supporting the work of the Trust and anybody interested should contact Tony Cross via their web site or direct by email. Many thanks to Tony for supplying this excellent photograph.
As in so many other fields, successful conservation of the Red Kite has relied on the tireless work of a few individuals assisted by the enlightened thinking of farmers and other landowners. These efforts have been aided by volunteers and supported by donations from the public. In the past in Wales funding and staff input from the Countryside Council for Wales (previously the Nature Conservancy Council) and the RSPB played an important part. Today this work is largely carried out and funded by a registered charity, the Welsh Kite Trust, set up for this sole purpose The task of conserving the Kite, which is also protected by law, is a considerable challenge in view of the geographic spread of so few birds and the distances that they can travel. Also, the nesting sites are usually very remote and difficult to find, making it hard for the relatively few volunteers of the Welsh Kite Watchers Group and the RSPB wardens to guard individual nests against egg collectors or to monitor the progress of chicks. However, they are succeeding to a certain degree and some native Welsh Kites have also been donated to rearing projects elsewhere in Great Britain, where European birds have been introduced at a number of sites. Provided that this hard work continues and that public support is forthcoming, the Welsh Red Kite will survive.
There are several ways in which you can help to ensure the survival of the Red Kite into the Millennium:
A very good general introduction to the history and conservation of the Kite can be found in John Evans' "The Red Kite in Wales". Whilst this is still obtainable from certain shops in Kite Country, those of you living far away might like to try the following link to Amazon.com.
I hope that those of you interested in the preservation of wild species have found my articles on the Red Kite informative. The thinly-populated wooded valleys and open moors of Kite Country are a haven for a very wide diversity of other flora and fauna. There are numerous protected reserves for the visitor to explore. If you want to know more, just go to my Wildlife page.
Enjoy yourselves and please look after the environment.
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