Spent yesterday afternoon at the Argaty Red Kite hide and would highly recommend a visit to Central Scotland’s only feeding station for these impressive raptors. Situated on a working farm, it’s a great example of wildlife conservation and farming coexisting and providing a valuable source of tourism revenue to the local economy. Between 1989 and 2009, RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage conducted an ambitious reintroduction project for this severely persecuted species, having become extinct in Scotland as a breeding bird during the late 19th Century following their once widespread population becoming decimated by sporting estates, egg collectors and taxidermy. With their help, Lerrocks Farm continues to play a vital role in their revival, through supplementary feeding and education.
The project aimed to restore red kites to all of their former ranges in Scotland. With just a handful of birds remaining in Wales, the absence of a dynamic gene pool meant that stock had to be obtained elsewhere. Between 1989 and 1994, 93 birds were brought in from Sweden to sites in Ross-shire. This was followed by 103 arriving from Germany between 1996 and 2001, forming the Argaty population. From 2001 to 2005, a further 104 were released in Dumfries and Galloway, using donor stock from the north of Scotland and a reintroduced colony in the Chilterns. The final stage of the operation involved 101 birds from donor stock in Central Scotland and the Chilterns finding a new home on the outskirts of Aberdeen.
Many were closely monitored by RSPB Scotland using radio tracking and wing tagging, with additional annual surveys carried out by the Scottish Raptor Study Group. By 2012, 214 breeding pairs had been identified across the country, along with 318 fledglings. The number of breeding pairs in Scotland now doubles every four to six years. It’s now hoped these existing ranges will, in time, converge into larger territories. For example, the Central Scotland and Aberdeenshire colonies overlapping in the Angus region.
Illegal poisoning remains their biggest threat, with around 166 birds killed in the Black Isle between 1999 and 2006. Their persecution is particularly pointless and unjustifiable, as they have no real adverse effect on farming or gamekeeping. They pose no threat to either because their diet predominantly consists of carrion, worms and small mammals such as voles and mice.
Despite visiting Argaty at a time when the red kites are less dependent on the hand-outs – Autumn and Winter are best for seeing the spectacle of 40 or 50 filling the sky – our patience was rewarded with a dozen or so performing aerial combat manoeuvres that would put an F-16 in the shade. Each one taking their turn to sweep a piece of meat off the ground with blink-and-you’ll-miss it alacrity. It all adds up to a genuinely impressive and mesmeric viewing experience, that in Britain at least, is unique to the red kite and shows how well a farm can work alongside and assist the conservation of wildlife.