20 February 2014

The Red Kite: Milvus Milvus, Tudor Legislation and the Little Ice Age

Walking down the street in Woking, I looked up and saw a magnificent bird of prey circling over the houses - a Red Kite ( Milvus Milvus ).
Red Kite, Photo by Thomas Kraft  CC BY-SA 2.5

I checked the RSPB website, looking at the distinctive shape of the wings and tail, further confirmation came from a friend who photographed, perhaps the same, Kite over the meadows near Papercourt Lock at Ripley.
Red Kite over Papercourt Lock

The Red Kite is principally a carrion scavenger, but will take small mammals, birds and earthworms too, particularly in the spring. The species is on the Amber List, but the good news is that Red Kites are making a comeback.

The Red Kite became extinct in England in 1871, and in Scotland in 1879, leaving only a tiny Welsh population. DNA analysis has shown the entire Welsh Red Kite population as being descended from a single female bird.

In the Middle Ages the Red Kite was numerous, welcomed in towns like London for it's valuable scavenging behaviour - it helped clean up the streets - and was protected with the Raven by Royal Decree. The bird was less popular amongst country folk being renowned as a thief of young poultry and small rabbits, both important rural food sources. The Kite's misfortunes began in the 16th century. Legislation enacted by King Henry VIII in 1532 and more particularly by Queen Elizabeth I in 1566 classed the Red Kite (along with many other species) as vermin. The Vermin Acts required communities to kill all manner of vermin and bounties were set. A dead Kite was worth 1d (one old penny).

Nowadays, this may seem cruel, but in the context of disastrous harvests during a bitter period of what we now call the "Little Ice Age" (triggered by a decrease in solar activity) it was a matter of human survival. And who are we to judge? In the face of climate change, we too may have tough choices to make.

Elizabeth I renewed the 1566 legislation "An Acte for the Preservation of Grayne" on two occasions and it remained on the Statute Book until 1863. It wasn't until 1903 that legislation was enacted to protect the Red Kite, yet despite all the problems there has been a successful programme of re-introductions over many years resulting in a healthy, expanding Kite population.

You may also like this lovely clip on the BBC website:
BBC Video, Red Kites following a plough (1.5 minutes)

"Silent Fields" by Roger Lovegrove 2007 Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-852071-9
Red Kite - RSPB Website