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When the Kite Builds – Book Review

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Antonia Devereux reviews ‘When the kite builds: Why and How we restored Red Kites across Britain’ ahead of its release on March 3rd. The book covers one of the world’s longest running and most successful restoration programmes, which brought the species back from the brink. Order your copy of here.

Red Kites are one of the most majestic birds, and today, can be found across UK skies without major difficulty. Kites are easy to differentiate from other birds of prey due to their deeply forked tail, which they appear to use effortlessly to change direction. I was really excited to receive this book as the kind of person who will stop and stare at almost any bird I see, and tell anyone who is around all about it. For those studying in York, I spotted one recently on Hull Road, so although they aren’t common here, it’s worth keeping an eye on the sky!

I fell in love with Red Kites when my sister moved to the outskirts of Leeds and on each visit I was stunned by the number of kites I saw. Intrigue led me to find out for myself the story of kites in the area, which were released from the Harewood Estate in 1999 for conservation efforts. Even then, I didn’t realise the scale of their decline, or the mass efforts of everyone involved in the programme, including Mike Pienkowski, the author of the book.

The book’s title is based on a Shakespearen quote from A Winter’s Tale,

“When the Kite builds, look to lesser linen”,

Alluding to when people would leave their washing out to dry in nesting season, Red Kites would swoop down and steal their clothes which were often made of linen. Today, kites continue to steal items to line their nests, a slightly odd habitat which features in the book with a lovely picture of a teddy bear next to a newly hatched chick. Even the title contains history, ecology, and the interactions between people and nature, a theme which continues throughout the book and truly has something to offer for every reader.

A swooping Red Kite eyeing up your linen? Credit: Herbert Aust from Pixabay

The book covers how kites were brought from the brink of extinction, with a small and excluded population in Wales, to over 10,000 Red Kites across the UK. It begins by covering the history of kites, providing a comprehensive overview of their up and down relationship with humans. Kites were originally a common sight in cities across Britain in the 17th century, accepted by humans as they removed waste and carcasses from the streets – the tide quickly turned though, and kites were soon considered vermin. Persecution of birds of prey became a routine part of game management, and alongside much of British wildlife, they even had payments on their heads. Unsurprisingly, populations declined and nature was stripped away from the countryside.

The book moves on to discuss the origins of the restoration programme, including who was behind the project and how Mike got involved. Useful backstory is presented including detailed information on many other restoration programmes across the UK, such as the White-tailed Eagle and Barn Owl, whose lessons helped inform the success of the Red Kite project. Towards the end of the book, the reintroduction situation is discussed more generally with reports on reintroductions of other bird species, such as White Storks, as well as a range of mammals, including the beaver and pine marten. If you are interested in conservation and reintroduction, this book provides a much wider knowledge base than just Red Kites, and is a great in-practice example of how these projects work, and the dedication required to pull them off. I’m currently writing my dissertation on Water vole reintroduction and translocation, so found this section as useful as I did interesting.

Kites were brought over from multiple countries, including Spain, Sweden, and Germany. Earlier successful releases in the UK meant small numbers of birds could also be moved around the country to help support populations in other areas. Releases took place in Chilterns, East Midlands, Yorkshire, and the north-east of England, where the birds are now considered ‘part of the wallpaper’, as if they never disappeared (whether that is a good thing or not could be an entire article alone). The story of the project is told in great detail, with yearly reviews, insights into kite behaviour in both captivity and upon release, the setbacks they faced, and of course, public opinion throughout.

The book provides insight into many UK birds, including the barn owl. Very popular within conservation leading to many releases, however, it was found that 90% of released individuals died within 10 months (sourced from book).

Credit: ​​Ronan Furuta on Unsplash.

One of the most important points made by the book is the following;

“It is even more important to prevent the loss of our native wildlife, rather than having to take heroic steps to reinstate it”

People’s turbulent relationship with nature is especially prominent in the UK, as one of the most nature depleted countries. More often than not, we are the reason behind declines in biodiversity. This is especially the case with raptors, who have been persecuted for hundreds of years, and still continue to be to this day. Reintroduction programmes like this one take years of dedication and large amounts of funding, and even after that, they may not even work. It is vital that we protect existing populations before they reach breaking point, and understand that reintroduction programmes cannot be applied to all species, or relied upon to fix our mistakes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but as an environment student with the hopes of working in conservation one day (plus a great love for birds!), perhaps this was always going to be the case. Despite this, ‘When the Kite Builds’ provides such a wide breadth of knowledge and history that I truly don’t see how this book wouldn’t be enjoyed by any reader.

‘When the Kite Builds, WHY and HOW we restored Red Kites across Britain’ can be pre-ordered here. The book was published by the Overseas Territories Conservation UK, and all proceeds go to the charity. Release date: March 3rd, 2023.

About the Author: Antonia Devereux is Wild Magazine’s Managing Editor and is a final year Environment, Economics, and Ecology student at the University of York. As a self proclaimed birder, she can be found looking into trees and through binoculars throughout most of the year.

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