The Returnee


Henry VIII was not a nice man. Apart from his well-documented personal life, he embraced a crusade against ‘bad’ British wildlife. He was hardly original – wolves at least were being exterminated by royal decree as far back as Norman times – but Tudor law eventually placed one of our most spectacular and harmless raptors firmly in the bounty hunter’s sights.

But most madness does end. The red kite – this forked-tailed scavenger that clears up carrion and delights birdwatchers everywhere – is once again widespread in British skies. Reintroductions have been highly successful in England, although rather less so in Scotland where illegal poisoning of wildlife sadly continues.

The North Downs has been adopted by kites reintroduced to the Chilterns. They follow tractors across the hills like outsized gulls.

Tractor and kite NDW 24 May 2017

Strange, really, to look at the kite through the eyes of a 16th century countryman who probably genuinely believed that it was harmful to livestock. In an era when there were so many real dangers, human nature seemingly demanded that people imagine more.

Today, kites make most people smile. I often meet hikers on the North Downs Way who pause in their long journeys to admire the acrobat in the sky.

Red kites3 14 Apr 2018

Red kites2 14 Apr 2018

The hills are a better place with them dancing above us.

6 thoughts on “The Returnee

    1. Yes…sadly we in England nearly found out what it’s like to be without them, but they are recovering well from centuries of persecution, at least here in the south. It’s still not good up north. Lots of grouse hunters there who don’t think twice about illegally killing birds of prey.

      But they’re quite safe here in the North Downs, and everyone seems to love seeing them.


  1. So sad that Europe proved to be close to left without any real wildlife. I remember, I could see an eagle only in zoo or on TV. Kestrels were the biggest raptors that sometimes visited Belgrade’s suburbs. Anything else… I was delighted when I saw a bald eagle soaring in the sky in Vancouver, when I moved to Canada. In last 7 years, I’ve seen more wildlife than I did in my entire life before (42 years, to be precise). That’s just sad. San told me that when she was young, she saw a grizzly bear dragging a moose on the road, one early morning in the Rockies. For me it was unimaginable, not only because we don’t have grizzlies and moose in Europe, but because even small brown bears are rare. I’ve only heard it once, sneaking around our shelter in Gorski Kotar, when I was mountain hiking with some friends. Other than that, only in zoo.


    1. It is sad that Europe went down to such a level. The industrialisation of farming, the over-production encouraged by various policies, historic intolerance and dense road network – so many challenges, especially in the UK and France. But the last decade has seen a significant shift in other areas and in many ways it is safer for large carnivores in Europe than in much of the continental US now. Iberian lynx are off the critically endangered list, wolves have recovered a big chunk of their historic range, bears…well, they’re still struggling, sadly. We have reintroduced beavers to the UK and maybe – maybe – lynx will follow soon.

      It is difficult to find wild-feeling landscapes here, of course. Eastern Poland comes closest.


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