Saturday, July 24, 2021
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Food for thought (and red kites)

Notes from the Sticks: Food for thought (and red kites)

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THERE is a strong human instinct to feed wild creatures. I don’t know why but maybe it’s some primitive desire to tame them. It seems a kind thing to do, but it can be the reverse.

A case in point is the red kite (Milvus milvus), a member of the eagle and buzzard family with a wingspan of nearly 6ft. As you can see from this video they are lovely to watch.

They were common in England throughout the Middle Ages and later. As carrion eaters they were useful consumers of rotting food. (Red kites are apparently unlikely to take lambs as they do not have a strong grip in their feet, though they can manage small mammals.)

Once the streets were cleared up numbers dwindled, and persecution by gamekeepers and egg-collectors reduced them to a few pairs in central Wales by the 1980s.

In 1986 the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council (forerunner of Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage) decided to reintroduce the red kite to England and Scotland. (I am not sure what, if any, public consultation took place – the RSPB website does not mention any.) The first releases were of Welsh and Spanish fledglings in the Chilterns area of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and the Black Isle of Scotland. The first breeding was recorded in 1992 and in 1994 the first birds reared in the wild brought up their own young.

At that point I started seeing occasional red kites soaring above the M40: a great thrill. They are easy to identify with their noticeably forked tails. 

The success of the programme prompted more releases in subsequent years and at other sites. There are now established populations in Dumfries and Galloway, north east England, Northamptonshire, Essex and Cumbria. I believe they are seen in Lancashire, though not by me, and the total British population is estimated at more than 10,000.

Many people enjoy seeing them and put food out for them, as in this video.

However this can lead to problems. Artificial feeding can increase the population beyond the limit that the natural food supply can support. The birds are not shy and in some places they have taken to snatching snacks from human hands, as this Times article reports. My son who lives in Reading reports that they circle persistently above a nearby garden where poultry are kept, driving the rooster to crow non-stop and my son to distraction. Not everyone likes having large birds flying close. (Interestingly, I had a vet who had a phobia of birds. His partners in the practice saw the bird clients.) So it is a shame if the urge to be kind to red kites turns them into a nuisance for others, and it probably really is better to let them find their own food than to become dependent on us.

There is a similar problem in many places with seagulls, usually herring gulls. This gives me an excuse to show some videos of these smart birds.

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Mercifully we have not heard much from the green folks during the ‘pandemic’, but the RSPB (which I mentioned above) decided last week that the time is right to start putting the fear of God into us. Clicking on its website produced an apocalyptic message: ‘We’ve failed. Nature’s closing down’, followed by:

The natural world you live in is dying. We’ve lost nearly 38 million birds in the last 50 years, and life as you know it could disappear within the decade. Nature’s closing down.

Leaving aside the role of the RSPB itself in reducing bird numbers by backing wind turbines (and refusing to acknowledge that magpies take chicks from nests), this was surely over the top. Seems someone at the RSPB thought so too, because by yesterday the message had been toned down to ‘In the near future, nature will be closed’ and the accompanying forecast of doom had disappeared.

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WE had welcome rain yesterday after a month with almost none (though I am certainly not complaining about the lovely sunshine we enjoyed). You could almost hear the plants soaking it up. However when our stream gets higher and more vigorous after rain, a varying amount of foam can appear on the surface. I cannot help but think that some people who live beside the water are careless or thoughtless about products they use in their gardens, which drain into the stream. Maybe we are so used to waste water disappearing down the drain that we forget that if you use a cleaner on your patio beside a stream it goes straight into the water. The same applies to weedkiller and pesticides. We have a few juvenile trout and it worries me how vulnerable they are.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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