Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 14:33 UK

Back from the brink, Red Kites return

By Mike McKimm
BBC NI environment correspondent

Red Kite in flight - RSPB

Just a handful of journalists and photographers witnessed the historic return of the Red Kite to the north of Ireland.

The RSPB released 27 chicks in what is the first ever species reintroduction to Northern Ireland, part of a pan-UK and Ireland reintroduction.

Set free in groups of four per day, most of the birds took their time to leave their cage.

It gave waiting photographers time to grab the first ever pictures of these birds in their new habitat. But once in the air they soared, turning into the wind and disappearing into dense woodland.

Once commonplace in the countryside, these spectacular birds were driven to near extinction in the UK by hunting, poisoning and changes to their habitat.

But from this week, after an absence of 200 years, their distinctive five foot wingspan and rusty-red colouring can be seen in the skies over County Down.

The RSPB's Red Kite officer, Robert Straughan, is part of the team who planned the birds return.

Red Kites
The RSPB released 27 birds in County Down

"The release has been the culmination of a huge amount of work over this past number of years in order to make this project a reality," he said.

"I have been looking after the birds prior to their release with important help from Forest Service and they are healthy and doing well.

"As they take their first flight in a new country the red kites should soon feel at home in the mixed woodland, farmland and rough grassland of south County Down, as it offers ideal habitat for the birds.

"People will be able to easily identify red kites with their rusty-red colouring, forked tail, white patches under each wing and inky black wing tips, not to mention their five-and-a-half feet wingspan."

With just a small population in Britain, it has not been an easy task to gather sufficient chicks for the reintroduction.

The young birds were carefully removed from nests where there was more than one chick, then hand-reared until big enough to be released and had shown the ability to fly and fend for themselves.

Each bird is tagged and carries a tiny radio beacon. This allows them to be followed and monitored to check on survival and watch how each copes with its environment.

It will also show how the kites interact with each other.

To help develop a sustainable population, more kite chicks were released into the countryside in County Wicklow in the Republic.

Scavengers

These birds will supplement the population re-introduced there in 2007. Across Scotland, England and Wales there are now more than 1,000 breeding pairs of Red Kites.

It's an amazing turnaround from a few years ago when there were just a handful of native birds left in Wales.

But there have been minor setbacks. A kite was recently shot dead in Wicklow and three were poisoned in Scotland.

There has been considerable secrecy about the exact location of the kites released in Northern Ireland.

Despite their size and seemingly menacing hooked bills, the birds offer no threat to farming of local communities.

"Kites are opportunistic scavengers, to conserve energy they feed mostly on worms and small dead animals, which they can see from a great height", Mr Straughan said.

"They are a large bird, but are not designed to feed on mobile prey, so are not a threat to livestock, game birds or songbirds."

Pigeon fanciers will also be relieved to know that the kites don't take other birds in flight.

Down, Newry & Mourne and Banbridge councils chipped in along with other organisations to make the reintroduction possible.

"Not only is this an exciting and important conservation project, but it could also provide a tremendous tourist boost to the local economy in the Mourne area", explained Mr Straughan.

"It is our belief that the Northern Ireland Red Kite Reintroduction Project will provide a similar outcome for conservation and for the benefit of local people."

People are encouraged to report any sighting of the birds to the RSPB either by emailing the information to redkiteni@rspb.org.uk or by telephoning 028 90 491547.




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