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Watch out for the Rockingham raptors

Richard Hollingum looks at a bird of prey that has made the headlines in Northamptonshire…

One fine, clear, bright cold morning I walked up the lane and took the footpath off to the left. The path runs down to a pool, formed from a clay pit, a memory from an earlier age, providing bricks for the village. Just before I got to the pool I turned right into My Field, a name adopted in our house for one of the favourite walks. There is a path that runs all the way round, a Permissive Way rather than a public footpath, that provides a good circuit for the dog. I usually walk this field in a clockwise manner, following the stream up to a small linear plantation on the crest of the hill, turning right along the edge of the plantation and then back down the other side.

This morning I could see a good distance; the air had the clarity and the sort of bright blue that you only get with a sharp frost. Entering the field and looking towards the top I could see the old oak at the edge of the plantation, it’s dead branches piercing the sky. At the top of the highest limb I could make out a large bird. Through the telephoto lens on my camera I could see that it was a Red Kite on lookout. I walked along the field margin, stopping several times to take a picture of it to check when I got home. As I got nearer I could see that there were in fact three kites in the tree.

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The Red Kite, Milvus milvus if you want to impress people, is one of those success stories of species reintroduction that gets a lot of coverage. And it is quite easy to see why they get the coverage – they are large, distinctive, and lovely to watch as they gracefully, smoothly, move through the air.

The male is slightly smaller than the female, a feature common amongst raptors; in some species the female can be considerably larger than the male. They tend to live between eight to ten years though have been know to survive into their twenties and will start to breed at two or three years of age. Pairs generally mate for life though they only stay together for the mating period in the spring.

Anyone who has driven down the M40 from Oxford towards London can not have failed to notice the vast numbers soaring over the traffic, keeping their eyes peeled for road kill. In the Middle Ages the red kite performed a useful service as much as the vultures do in India, by cleaning the land. This scavenging helped keep disease and infection down by the disposal of dead and rotting bodies but by the 16th Century they were being persecuted having been classed as ‘vermin’ and became extinct in England in 1871. Today, the frequency of kites in the Chilterns is due to the fact that this was one of the two areas where planned reintroduction originally took place. The other site was Rockingham Forest, and between 1995 and 1998 70 young birds were brought from Spain, reared in the Northamptonshire woodlands and subsequently released. By 2002, 22 breeding pairs had produced 42 young.

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Since then the population has not only continued to grow but also to spread. Just as the Chiltern population moved outwards from the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire borders, so the Northamptonshire ones have spread. The ones I see over the fields may well be from Rockingham, but I suppose it is equally plausible to imagine the Chiltern ones working their way up the M40, leaving at junction 10 and proceeding along the A43 into Northamptonshire.

When we moved to our little patch in the north-west of the county, about ten years ago, the buzzard was just beginning to thrive again. Three or four years later a solitary red kite floated its way across the countryside and a year or so after that, it was joined by another. For a period the buzzard seem to disappear, displaced, but they too are in our skies again and there are many occasions when both can seen – and heard.

As I continued my walk along the field margin, I could see that the three kites were facing away from me but somehow I also knew that they knew that I was there. Despite my presence they remained still and I stopped every ten metres or so to take a couple more pictures. When I reached the plantation I had full cover as the old oak was on the far side.

The kite, like most birds, does have other, local names such as ‘gleade’ or ‘puttock’ a word familiar to Shakespeare. Puttock was clearly not restricted to Warwickshire as John Clare called them ‘puddocks’:

I sat on my old bench in June,

The sailing puddock’s shrill ‘peelew’

On Royce Wood seemed a sweeter tune.

(The Flitting)

The crows and jackdaws flapping home at night

And puddock circling round its lazy flight

Round the wild sweeing wood in motion slow

Before it perches on the oaks below

(The Shepherd’s Calendar – October)

I crept through the stand of birch and larch and approached the huge grey trunk. As I moved round to get a view – and a photograph – of these kites, the one at the top gently and silently lifted of its perch, gave two slow flaps of its wings and away it went. At this signal the one on the next level followed suit, pursued by the third. And then, to my surprise, two more who were too low down the tree to seen from the path, set off in pursuit of the others. Five in one tree.

There is apparently no official collective noun for a group of red kites though according to britishbirdlovers.co.uk, some people will refer to a group as a wake which is the same as the collective noun for buzzards. Other unofficial terms include ‘husk’, ‘kettle’ and ‘soar’.

Whatever the term, this was the first time I had seen so many red kites together in a tree. Since then it is common to see several in the vicinity at one time, whether they are scouring a field after tilling, rubbing shoulders with the buzzards, or are quartering the area as a small group particularly on cold bright mornings when the air is clear and a dead animal can be easily spotted from on high. Once the meal has been seen, they circle effortlessly to the area, coming down in a silent spiral, throwing the wings back to break the speed as they land, feet in front, gather themselves and set about their repast.

For more information about red kites visit

Rockingham Forest/Fineshade Woods

British Trust for Ornithology: www.bto.org

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: www.rspb.org.uk

Fineshade Woods: www.forestry.gov.uk/toplodge

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