Kites above Suffolk are a good news story

After decades of persecution, raptors like the buzzard and red kite are now a common sight in Suffolk. Their comeback is cause for celebration writes Ross Bentley and Adrian Walters.

Everyone likes a ‘good news’ story and particularly so, if it relates to wildlife because so much news relating to our native fauna tends to be gloomy.

We constantly hear about declining numbers of different species and local or wider extinctions. This is not good, either for our natural world or our wellbeing, so when a wildlife good news story comes along it is very much welcome.

Raptors, otherwise known as birds of prey, have had a long history of persecution, particularly so during the Victorian period when every country estate employed gamekeepers to control these so-called ‘vermin’ that they considered would prey on grouse and pheasants.

However, there is now a more general understanding that buzzards have a wide-ranging diet and take few birds. They will take rodents such as voles and mice, snakes, reptiles including lizards, carrion and even insects and earthworms – making the most of whatever food source is in the area. Even so, there is pressure in some parts of the country where large shooting estates are still part and parcel of country living, as numbers of these birds have increased.

The buzzard has made its ‘come-back’ since the 1960s and is now established as the commonest large breeding raptor in every county. In Suffolk they are a regular feature, circling high on the thermals that form above our gentle landscape.

Another large raptor that can be seen in the sky over Suffolk today, the red kite, has on the other hand had a much more difficult journey back from the brink of extinction.

Pic: Ron Smith

In England they were exterminated in the belief that they took grouse and pheasants, but in fact they feed mostly on carrion – animal carcasses – performing an important and useful service in removing dead animals from the countryside. Indeed, one theory holds that the red kite’s progress to becoming re-established in the east of England can be tracked along major roads such as the A14 where there is plenty of roadkill to sustain the birds. Back in Elizabethan London red kites were hailed as vital in helping keep the city clean from decaying rodents and rotten food.


Following the period of persecution, only a few birds persisted in the wilds of Wales, so it was agreed that a reintroduction programme was necessary to re-establish this beautiful bird in England. Ironically, the first thirteen birds were ‘flown in’ by jet from Spain and released in the Chilton Hills in 1989. Soon, other birds from Sweden and Germany were released in other parts of the country. The Chilton birds thrived, thanks largely to the availability of enormous quantities of roadkill and the project is regarded as one of the most successful wildlife reintroduction programmes in the UK.

Although red kites arrived in Suffolk a good many years ago, they were very slow indeed to increase in number. Recently however, the population has grown, so that kites are now a regular sight. I now see them hovering over roads across Suffolk as I drive around. Recently, a red kite cast a shadow from above as I sat in my garden in the centre of Sudbury. I have never seen them so far into my hometown before – a sign that they are now more common here than anytime in living memory.

Another memorable sighting recently was seeing three kites hovering over several carcasses on a road near Stoke-by-Nayland. Hanging low, they offered up stunning views of their distinguishing white underwing flashes and rusty red bodies. But they were unperturbed by the cars underneath, waiting patiently for the traffic to pass so they could descend once more and continue their meal.

Forked tail

Although all bird species are a welcome sight there is something about the kite that makes the heart beat faster than usual. The wings are large and curved with primary feather extending from the ends. When in flight they are unmistakable, and a sighting generates a bit of excitement.

But the most distinctive element of the kite is the deep fork in its tail, which is the easiest way to identify them. Kites use this tail as a rudder for steering and maintaining a slow hanging flight while they survey the world below.

I had assumed that it was this hanging flight that earnt the bird its name – as it pivots in the air like the children’s toy of the same name. But I have recently learnt that the bird’s title came first and that the flying toy is, in fact, named after the bird. In Stephen Moss’s excellent book Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, which explores the origins of birds names, the authors reveals that the name kite derives from the Old English ‘cyta’ – a word said to imitate the bird’s high-pitched, whistling call.

Red kites are also an important part of our natural history, referred to down the ages by the likes of Shakespeare and East Anglian poet John Clare who described seeing a kite ‘Above the oaks with easy sail /On stilly wings and forked tail.’

In an age when so many, once very common bird species are being added to the ‘red list of conservation concern’ with each new review, the most recent of which was published in December 2021, it is wonderful to see that one or two are bucking the trend.

May they continue to thrive into the future and may many other species soon join them.

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