Seven of the best places to see red kites soaring over Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 19:20 20 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:38 21 July 2020
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Three decades ago, the red kite was extinct in England – but this majestic bird has made a “triumphant comeback” to Norfolk’s skies thanks to a radical reintroduction scheme.
Environmentalists are celebrating the 30th anniversary of a pioneering project which has been described as one of the biggest success stories in UK conservation history.
The red kite, a large bird of prey that largely feeds on carrion and worms and cuts a distinctive silhouette with wing tips that look like splayed fingers and a forked tail, was a common city scavenger in medieval London.
But the birds’ fortunes declined in the face of persecution and egg collecting, and by the 20th century they were extinct in both England and Scotland, with only a small population clinging on in Wales.
So in July 1990, 13 young red kites were brought from Spain and released in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, on the border of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
Across the UK, thousands of these majestic birds can now be seen soaring over countryside, roads and towns – including in Norfolk, which is estimated to be home to more than 100 individuals and 10-12 breeding pairs. Some of the best places to spot the birds include:
• The Brecks, including Thetford Forest and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at East Wretham Heath.
• The RSPB Strumpshaw Fen nature reserve on the River Yare east of Norwich.
• Beeston Bump, with its panaromic views of coastal landscape between Cromer and Sheringham.
• Winterton dunes, near Great Yarmouth.
• The parkland surrounding the UEA Broad at the University of East Anglia.
• Swanton Novers raptor watchpoint, which has views over Swanton Great Wood near Fakenham.
• The A149 coast road between King’s Lynn and Wells has several red kite hotspots including Sandringham, Snettisham and the outskirts of Hunstanton.
Bob Morgan, a reserves officer for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said the birds took a while to venture away from their new heartlands, partly because they prefer the company of other red kites while searching for food.
“They like to be near other red kites because they are scavengers, so one bird will indicate to another one where there might be carrion or a sheep carcass,” he said.
“That is one of the reasons they have been having difficulty breaking out from Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Ten years ago – even five years ago – there were hardly any here in Norfolk, but younger birds tend to stray off and look for new places and they can be seen fairly regularly in Norfolk now.
“The best place to see them is the Brecks, it is the perfect habitat as there is a mixture of open ground, grazing marshes, woodland and livestock there. They need tall undisturbed trees to nest in and they like open country to hunt in and look for carrion. They often hunt during the day as they like to catch the thermals, and you can often see them over roads looking for roadkill.
“They are distinctive looking. Once you see one in the air they are very obvious with that forked tail and rusty red plumage – it is a sight that stays with you.”
Jeff Knott, RSPB operations director for Eastern England said: “In the 1980s, anyone wanting to see a red kite had to make a special pilgrimage to a handful of sites.
“Today it is a daily sight for millions of people. In a few short decades we have taken a species from the brink of extinction, to the UK being home to almost 10pc of the entire world population.
“It might be the biggest species success story in UK conservation history.”
The reintroduction scheme was a collaboration between the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England), RSPB, Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Zoological Society London and British Airways.
Natural England chairman Tony Juniper said: “Red kites are one of our most majestic birds of prey with a beautiful plumage, and are easily recognisable thanks to their soaring flight and mewing call.
“Persecuted to near-extinction, they have made a triumphant comeback in England over the past three decades.
“Thanks to this pioneering reintroduction programme in the Chilterns, increased legal protection and collaboration amongst partners, the red kite stands out as a true conservation success story.”
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