I remember the day we were ushered into the school assembly room, a small gaggle of excited children. We awaited our visitor with great expectation: a local conservationist. Silence fell as she began to describe the red kite. A bird that had been driven to extinction in England and Scotland, but had clung to survival in the oakwoods of mid-Wales. I felt immense pride. We are special. These rolling hills, this verdant patch of land, the place we call home, is the last bastion of hope for a rare master of the sky.
The kite is the national bird of Wales and the symbol of our county. Any traveller coming to this part of the world will pass the stamp of a red bird with forked tail on crossing the Powys border. The conservationist showed us photos of sleek-bodied kites and spoke with passion about this charismatic raptor. She told us that there were only one hundred breeding pairs left in Wales. At the time this august creature was on the global endangered list. But things were about to change.
The lesson left a lasting impression. Day after day I searched the skies above my childhood farm. When one day I spotted one, the excitement was palpable.
Master of the wind, motionless but for the gentle tilt of her pronged tail. From above, she boasts a shimmer of feathers, tobacco and rust, a phoenix echo as they catch the fire of sunset. From below I see patches of white at the end of her wings, black primary feathers reaching out of them like black fingers from a pale palm. She shrieks, banshee of the skies. Keen eyes take in whole valleys and hillsides in the long, slow dusk of summer. Balanced on dying sunlight, she whirlpools, wingtips stretched out to caress the air, the whole world turning below.
I had always wondered at buzzards, a common sight on the farm – but now a kite! Sleeker, more refined, a maestro conducting the wind. Her elegance stole my heart. What draws us to rarity? If gold were as common as iron would we still find it beautiful? If kites were as numerous as crows, would they still inspire? It felt a privilege to witness a creature that remained nothing but pictures in books for so many others. Precious, like rubies on the wing.
Near my Dad’s house, there lived a family of red squirrels. Every time my brother and I would visit, we would look out for them. According to official maps they had been wiped out in this area. As their numbers diminished through the years, each sighting felt more remarkable. But eventually we stopped seeing them altogether… As the sun set on the fate of local red squirrels, it rose for the red kings of the sky; kites bred themselves into a conservation success story.
The story began in 1903 with the formation of the Kite Committee, a garrison of individuals who initiated the first nest protection schemes.
The rarity of the red kite had made it a prime target for egg collectors. Nest thieves were responsible for taking up to a quarter of all kite eggs, perversely making future thefts even more valued as they drove the species’ scarcity. More sophisticated nest protection succeeded in reducing the proportion of nests robbed, and blessedly this is no longer regarded as a serious problem.
Due to the low rate of chick production, the Welsh population appeared to be unable to spread beyond the border to recolonise its former range. A re-introduction programme started in 1989 and has helped to establish red kites in several areas of England and Scotland. Each year, their range and numbers are slowly expanding. As I write now it is gratifying to know that the number of breeding pairs in Wales has risen from one hundred at the time of that school visit, to over a thousand today. A magnificent volte-face for both this stately bird and for our skies.
During lockdown I find pleasure in lying on the lawn of my small city garden and staring at the sky. I still live in Wales, but have exchanged the rolling hills of Powys for Cardiff’s urban streets. I will find no kites here, but there is still satisfaction in gazing up at the avian kingdom. Endless blue, the sky more vast than comprehension. There’s comfort in feeling so small. We foist an ego of importance upon ourselves and our busy human lives. The sky gives us perspective. A bird sees us as we see an ant. Do they pity us, prisoners of the land? The freedom of dancing across all planes, ascribing no meaning to distance, to swallow vast landscapes in a glance. If life ever starts to feel overwhelming, lie on the grass and look skyward.
In my garden the sparrows chatter laughingly from the honeysuckle. I wonder what they think of our predicament, for surely they have noticed. I’ve heard birdsong in the city like never before. We have stepped back, stepped in, stayed home, and they have taken their rightful place as masters of the soundscape. No wonder they sound so jubilant.
The kite, now relegated to rural landscapes, was once a common sight in cities. What a majestic addition to our skies! I long for their return. But the bird did not always hold such cherished status. In centuries past, when it was commonly found in urban settings, the raptor’s taste for refuse and carrion earned it the name shitehawk. Shakespeare would have witnessed many kites gliding over London. In King Lear he betrays his dislike of the bird, describing Goneril as a detested kite. He also wrote when the kite builds, look to your lesser linen, a reference to them stealing washing hung out to dry in the nesting season. (They are indeed disorderly nesters, making beds for their young with all kinds of waste, and have been recorded building with everything from unguarded toys to knickers stolen from washing lines.) Historical hostility towards the bird extended beyond the capital. In the mid-fifteenth century, King James II of Scotland decreed that they should be “killed wherever possible”. Under the Tudor vermin laws many creatures were seen as competitors for the produce of the countryside and bounties were paid by the parish for their carcasses. Humanity has a long and troubling history of going to war against nature.
The persecution of the kite continued through the following centuries largely by game keepers, who wrongly accused them of taking game and then by egg collectors and taxidermists, drawn by their rare jewel status. The red kite became extinct in England in 1871 and in Scotland in 1879. By the time the Kite Committee was founded, only a handful of pairs were left in remote parts of mid-Wales. The birds became so scarce that DNA analysis has shown the entire Welsh population derives from a single female bird.
In a remarkable resurrection from the brink of extinction, the red kite has increased not only in number but also in our estimation. In 1999, the British Trust of Ornithology recognised this striking change of fortunes by crowning the red kite the bird of the century.
In the caves of the Gower peninsula, kite bones have been found dating back 120,000 years. They have called Wales home since long before the dawn of human history. We nearly destroyed them, but their tenacity has won out and we have learned to afford the kite the respect she deserves.
The red dragon lives on in our national bird. Long may she thrive.
Jodie Bond has worked for a circus, a gin distillery, as a burlesque artist and has sold speciality sausages for a living, but her biggest passion has always been writing. She is an award-winning radio writer, a communications professional and one of the founding members of the Canton Book Festival. Her debut novel, The Vagabond King, is published by Parthian Books and is part one of a trilogy.