Monday, 23 January 2012

Cutting off the nose to spite the face?

I nearly touched a red kite on Saturday morning. At least that's how it felt. I was sitting in the armchair with my first coffee of the day, gazing blankly out into the still dawn-gloomy garden, when a large, golden brown shape dipped and weaved across my view - not 20 feet from the window. It was pursued by an angry mob of hecklers - jackdaws yelling 'get orf moy land!!!' at the obvious interloper. The kite seemed unperturbed. It languidly flapped those impossibly flexible wings it has - curved air with feathers - and disappeared from view above the roof, heading back across the hills to the north.

Not three miles north of here, as the kite flies, is Argaty, near Doune, where the second batch of red kites were released in Scotland between 1989 and 1996. Now nearly 30 pairs breed in the area each year. Despite this they are not a common sight in the village, preferring to head north and east, where they can stay closer to the open woodlands that they favour for shelter. We sometimes spot the odd one quartering the big sheep field across the railway track. They're presumably on the lookout for an easy meal - red kites are notorious scavengers, but we never see the big winter flocks of 40 or more that congregate above the Argaty woods at dusk before bedding down for the night.

Still, we are luckier than the people living south and east of the first release site, on the Black Isle. Despite the birds' success in colonising to the north, red kites have made no progress in Moray and South Invernesshire, according to the most recent edition of the Scottish Ornithological Club's The Birds of Scotland. It seems illegal poisoning is to blame. Some have pointed out the proximity of grouse moors to the places where red kites are struggling.

Red kites have been reintroduced because they are a natural part of our ecosystem in this country. Not only do they play their part in clearing away carrion, but popular prey species in Scotland, points out the SOC, are rabbit, brown rat, hooded and carrion crow, rook and wood pigeon - mostly species that have been labelled as 'pests', and are also persecuted by the very people who may be to blame for the failure of red kites to thrive in parts of the north-east of Scotland. Could it be that the sport of the few is not only denying the many the pleasure of seeing this magnificent flying machine, but also cutting off its nose to spite its face?

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