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 estate employed game keepers 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 Sudbury they are a regular feature over the riverside, circling high on the thermals that form above the valley slopes.
Another large raptor, that can be seen in the sky over Sudbury today, the red kite, has on the other hand had a much more difficult journey back from the brink of extinction.
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. Back in Elizabethan London they 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. Rather 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 considerably, so that kites are now a regular sight over the riverside and town.
Although all bird species are a welcome sight there is something about the kite that excites. The wings are large and curved with primary feather extending from the ends and the long, forked tail, used to manoeuvre and hover slowly, is very distinctive. When in flight they are unmistakable and a sighting generates a bit of excitement.
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.’
It is also worth noting that the flying toy we call a kite was named after the bird, not vice versa – because it hangs in the air like the bird.
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.