After suffering near-extinction and some undeserved bad press, the kite is making a comeback. Jessie Anderson reports
In medieval times, before the advent of roadsweepers and dustmen, the scavenging red kite performed a similar service for the community. The bird's rusty-red plumage and black wing-tips were a common sight in British skies and streets. Sadly, though, the creature fell out of favour, the victim of some unjustified bad publicity.
Along with other birds of prey, kites were accused of taking game and farm stock, and from the 16th century they were persecuted to the brink of extinction - shot, poisoned and trapped.
But a small community of kites hung on in Wales, even when they had disappeared from the rest of Britain for a century. Yet the case against them was always flimsy. They are not powerful birds and would be incapable of killing a lamb, for example.
In fact, kites prefer the role of scavenger to that of predator. The food provided by carrion - more and more the result of motor vehicles - makes a much easier meal than live prey. Their scavenging talents are also much in evidence in their untidily constructed nests, which often contain a bizarre assortment of building materials - plastic bags, children's toys, even underwear snatched from washing lines. Shakespeare knew of the bird's nesting habits when he wrote in A Winter's Tale: "When a kite builds, look to lesser linen."
Now, in our more enlightened times, the birds are making a comeback, partly thanks to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and government agencies working in partnership with landowners, farmers and raptor workers.
With their distinctive colouring and lazy wing-flapping, red kites can now be seen at three sites in Scotland (the Black Isle, Dumfries and Galloway and Stirlingshire). They can be seen in England, too - in the Chilterns, East Midlands and Harewood Estate, just north of Leeds, and since last June at Gateshead's Derwent Valley.
In Dumfries and Galloway, the authorities have eliminated the uncertainty from kite-spotting by creating the Galloway Kite Trail. Apart from the spring and early summer nesting season, you would have to be very unlucky not to see a number of these beautiful birds in flight.
Kites were re-introduced to Galloway in 2001. A pair had not bred there since around 1870. The varied landscape of woodland, farmland, marsh and hill around Loch Ken provides a suitable habitat for them, and with more recent releases their number has grown to just under 100.
Their progress is being monitored by Kevin Duffy, the red kite project officer for RSPB Scotland. The birds are fitted with wing-tags and small radio transmitters that enable him to spot signs of trouble immediately.
Sadly, despite the general enthusiasm for the re-appearance of the birds, there is occasional trouble. Eleven of the released birds have died from poisoning. The target may have been crows or foxes, but the threat to this still vulnerable population remains clearly in evidence.
In summer, the 40-mile trail around Loch Ken increases to 60 miles to include Clatterinshaws visitor centre, which shows film footage of the kites. Viewing and information areas on the trail are marked by a red kite logo.
Many visitors, including school parties, choose a selection of sites, rather than attempting the whole trail. A brochure and map are available from the Dumfries and Galloway office of RSPB Scotland or the tourist board, which gives information about the kites as well as the location of viewing platforms, hides and details of local accommodation.
There is also an excellent red kite dossier on the history and current status of the bird as well as details of re-introduction projects and threats to the birds' survival. A companion dossier provides teaching materials for pupils in Key Stages 1 and 2, including a range of cross-curricular activities in history, geography and citizenship.
RSPB Scotland (Dumfries and Galloway office): tel 01556 670464;www.rspb.org.ukDG Tourist Board: tel 01387 253862