Sunday book review – When the kite builds… by Mike Pienkowski

I can see a Red Kite from my Northamptonshire home every day of the year. I often pause to look at them even though I see them more often than I see a Buzzard or a Kestrel. I pause because they are just wonderful birds but also because they are a conservation success story – perhaps like no other in the UK. And this book is an insider’s account of that success story.

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 non-governmental 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. I suspect that he has boxes of papers and reports from those times still in his possession because this is not a slightly hazy recollection of what happened but a detailed documented and well illustrated telling of the story.  The annexes contain transcripts of the file note from the Kite Meeting in March 1987 and other contemporary documents produced as briefing and guidance in the early days.

This is definitely a readable account with well-chosen graphs and tables, and a wealth of photographs of the birds, localities and people involved. There is lots of information about the birds themselves, of course, but it is largely an account of a conservation project, and as such it is a very worthwhile collection of the thinking and action that led eventually to success.

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! It did, in essence, amount to letting a load of Red Kites out of a box and letting them get on with it, but how many kites? From where? And to where? And how do you persuade people to accept them and to fund a long-term project? The answers are here.

I was very peripherally involved with this work (so were loads of people) and I remember thinking (when  joining the RSPB as a very junior member of staff in the mid-1980s) that reintroducing Red Kites to the south of England wasn’t going to work but it might work in the north of Scotland. Well, we now know that both worked (so I was wrong) and that the releases in the Chilterns did much better than those in the Black Isle (so I was wrong again!). But whereas I was always keen to see what would happen, others, some inside but rather more outside nature conservation were dead against this project.

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.

The cover?  That’s definitely a Red Kite and is a fitting cover for this book, and what a bird it is, so I’d give it 8/10.

When the kite builds…; why and how we restored Red Kites across Britain by Mike Pienkowski is published by Overseas Territories Conservation UK.


8 Replies to “Sunday book review – When the kite builds… by Mike Pienkowski”

  1. I love this quote from The Winter’s Tale: “My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen”. Does the author mention finding items of laundry in kites’ nests?

    1. We found a tea-towel and a teddy-bear’s head in our first successful Yorkshire nest in 2000. The male of the pair was less than a year old when he bred, he being of Chilterns origin and released in 1999.
      Soft toys figured regularly in our nest records in subsequent years, including a Bagpuss which has pride of place on my car dashboard. Maybe our most bizarre item was a funeral order of service found at an East Yorkshire nest site.

  2. In the early 70s I lived near Tregaron and used to see a couple flying around the church there when numbers were really low.
    Then there was a big increase and they were everywhere but not around Chester where I lived in the 90s
    Moving back to Wales in the late 90s with feeding stations you could see 50 odd in one place.
    Now I’m in South Devon and I don’t see them at all but do see a lot more buzzards.

  3. Well said Mark!!! The objections against translocations and reintroductions are infuriating, no matter how often they’ve been proved to be empty contrarian/reactionary rhetoric they still keep getting regurgitated. The translocation of the red kite within the UK has been a tremendous success, but perhaps I’m greedy, I would still like to see another one in the Central belt of Scotland as far away from grouse moors as can be, and if possible pheasant shoots too.

    I think all the existing populations in Scotland have been suppressed to some degree by illegal persecution, I don’t believe any have really taken off in the way the Chilterns one has yet. I might be biased, but I suggest Falkirk being smack bang in the centre of the Central Belt is about as good as it gets re lowest risk from shooting estates. If in 1989 red kites had been released here rather than on the Black Isle how different would the total Scottish population be today? Local pigeon fanciers are a pain in the arse – a couple have even claimed kites have attacked their pigeon lofts (!!??!!), but I can’t see them ever being as big an issue as the grouse moors that pretty much box in other Scottish translocations.

    I was told by a volunteer at one of the translocation sites that in the early days it had simultaneously hosted a pheasant shoot – until some of the shooters somehow ‘mistook’ red kites for pheasants and took the odd pot shot at them. To its great credit the farm thought stuff the shooting, ended it and their red kite viewing business has never looked back.

  4. I recall that, after the Chilterns population became well established, Richard Ingrams used to write hysterical pieces in the papers from time to time about the terrible dangers posed by Red Kites. As far as I know nothing has ever befallen the people of the area at the hands (er, talons) of these terrible birds and life is as peaceful and safe (at least from avian marauders) as it has ever been.

  5. I can remember the first Red Kite I ever saw on a respected grouse moor near me. About twenty years ago, plodding along with the dog on a wild, wet (about November) day and it appeared over a ridge battling against a strong wind. My jaw dropped. I can remember thinking… F-ing hell this is a big deal! The keepers (who I knew fairly well) won’t have this. No way. What will happen, will they nip this in the bud, is this going to be normal?
    And what has happened – well, if you put 4-6 hours in with good binos on a good vantage point you might see one or more on any given day of the year. But have any territories / nests ever established on this large estate? No, not one. And the raptor researchers record only a handful of efforts and with little success over the surrounding hundred thousand acres or so of grouse moors. So it is a bittersweet thing to see and admire one knocking about, as you know what will happen if it hangs about in the same place. It will be “disappeared” only to be replenished by another, and another…etc.

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