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Tuesday, 22 January 2013 01:02

Was it ethical to Re-introduce Red Kites to Ireland?

Red Kite with gloves Red Kite with gloves (c) Marc Ruddock

A new publication, Birds through Irish Eyes, by Anthony McGeehan, and two recent Irish Times articles (15/12/2012 & 19/01/2013), by Michael Viney, have raised the question whether Red Kites were ever found in Ireland and whether bird of prey reintroductions are necessary.  The suggestion in the book that the ‘introduction’ of Red Kite was ‘unethical’ is a slight on the Irish Raptor Study Group, the Northern Irish Raptor Study Group, all the Red Kite Projects Managers in Wicklow, Down and Dublin (2007-2013), the judgement of the statutory licensing authorities in both host jurisdictions and the donor country (Wales), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Golden Eagle Trust. The cumulative impact of 3 separate assertions, from Anthony McGeehan and Michael Viney, who are highly regarded, is now accruing.   These comments could be perceived as questioning the integrity of the individuals and bodies involved and now warrant an explanatory response.

The comments on the merits of reintroduction are less serious, as there is no sacrosanct view regarding the use of scarce resources and the selection of conservation priorities.  Irish raptor reintroductions have been openly and persistently criticised, by a number of influential Irish ornithologists and birdwatchers, since they began in 2001.  They require close scrutiny and a wide spectrum of criticism, if they are to remain vibrant going forward.  Raptors are now an important part of Ireland’s conservation management, at levels more akin to the European conservation norms.  Recent raptor efforts have broadened the once narrow bird conservation outlook, which was limited by resources, of the previous decades. There is some unease about the raptor initiatives and the emerging levels of public engagement, adopted by the established conservation sector.  Irish conservationists cannot tackle the myriad of difficulties faced by nature, on their own - recent decades of habitat and species decline demonstrate this point.  More so than any suite of Irish birds, these avian predators are reliant on good public awareness.

(1) Irish Red Kite history

The review states McGeehan clearly suspects the red kite, released in County Down, “was never here”.  But kites were living in Ireland, across the seasons, as documented in numerous centuries and across a third of the counties.  The majority of other native species, ‘presumed’ to have bred here historically, have no proof positive of their former breeding status, prior to the 1800s.  There are no British Trust for Onithology nest record cards or black and white photographs of Buzzard or Hen Harrier nests, prior to or, during the 16-18th Centuries, for example.  The carefully worded IUCN Guidelines, governing reintroduction best practice, anticipated these problems, and state in Section 4 a iii, the release “site should be within the historic range of the species” and in the preamble to the guidelines they mention that reintroduction is a “useful tool for restoring a species to an original habitat” and one should “assess the previous relationship of the species to the habitat into which the reintroduction is to take place”

Ireland’s Lost Birds’

5 pages of Red Kite evidence in Gordon D’Arcy ground-breaking book, (Ireland’s Lost Birds, 1999), concerning the history of extinct native birds, has failed to convince McGeehan, who may have deferred to the opinion of Thompson (1850) or others.  D’Arcy quotes references from Smith (1750 & 1756) who indicated Kites were breeding in Cork and Waterford and were common, like Buzzards, across parts of the country.   There are also references to Kites that were found and killed in Londonderry and Antrim (bordering County Down).  Several Irish Statutes are mentioned, offering a bounty for killing vermin including kites.  Why would a kite be listed as vermin, if it was not present during the hatching time (breeding season) of young domestic fowl and Gamebirds?  This is the primary source of evidence of the kite’s former presence in Ireland and the details below merely try to augment D’Arcy’s findings.  In fairness to McGeehan, he may not have been aware of the following materials.

Irish Archaeology

Dr Derek Yalden has compiled a database of 9839 birds, species and individuals, identified in British and Irish Archaeological excavations.  This list includes 7 recovered and verified Irish Red Kite bones from Roscrea, Lough Gur and five sites around Dublin, across a wide time span.  This may appear like quite a small number.  But if one puts it in context, it is actually quite significant, in terms of the paucity of bird remains found in Ireland generally.  For example, one of our commonest birds, Domestic Fowl, only has 30 individuals recorded and Crane, which was relatively numerous, only has 21 recovered individuals.  There is clearly a dearth of published Archaeological bird bone research in Ireland, in comparison to mammalian studies. 

Nonetheless, the extent of raptor bird bone records, from this list, is quite revealing and presents a tantalising glimpse into the status of woodland and wetland raptors prior to the persistent expansion of farming.  The Irish raptor bone list, in numerical order, is as follows; Buzzard (10 individuals), Red Kite (7), White-tailed Sea Eagle (6), Goshawk (5), Marsh Harrier (4), Peregrine and Sparrowhawk (3 each), Kestrel, Osprey, Barn Owl, Hen Harrier (2) Long eared Owl, Golden Eagle (1).  So the question arises; why would these recoveries suggest that the Red Kite was the second commonest raptor in Ireland, if it was never found in Ireland?  The different size of species’ bones and the unknown past human associations with different raptor species, may distort the numerical order of the above list.  But it clearly suggests that kites were once a well known raptor in Ireland.  Smith’s reputation and account of kites, (1750-1774), which were rather arbitrarily dismissed by Thompson in 1850, may merit a more benign contemporary consideration.

Irish Language

Even if only a small minority of people are familiar with Irish - it does contain a legitimate form of historical record.  Kites probably became extinct around the early 1800s and therefore many of the old records will be in Irish, especially prior to the 1600s.  If we are genuine about discovering our avian past, archaeology and the Irish manuscripts, are two resources that have to be placed alongside 19th century English Natural History books. 

Niall O Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge- Béarla, 1977, gives the following

Cúr = Kite, Cubhar = Cúr (i.e. look up cúr), Préachán na gcearc = Hen Harrier, Kite

Tomás de Bhaldraithe, English- Irish Dictionary, 1959, gives the following

Kite = Orn. Cúr

Rev Patrick S. Dinneen, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, 1927, Cromán = Crow, Kite

Préachán ceirteach = a kite, Préachán geárr = a glede or buzzard (geárr = sharp)

Préachán na gcearc = a kite or a scald crow, Garbh Sheabhac = glede   (garbh means rough and seabhac means hawk), [Glede is an Olde Anglo Saxon or Anglo Irish word for kite]

Edward Dwelly, Scots Gaelic Dictionary, 1901

Préachán Ceirteach = Red Kite, Clamhan gobhlach = a kite

Edward O Reilly & John O Donovan, An Irish-English Dictionary, 1864

Préachán ceirteach = a kite, any ravenous bird, Préachán na gcearc = a kite, a Ringtail

Thomas de Vere Coneys, Focloir Gaoidhilge – Sacs- bearla, 1814

Préachán ceirteach = a kite, Preachán geárr = a glede, a buzzard

John O Brien & Edward Lhuyd, Focalóir Gaoidhilge-sax-bhéarla, 1768,

Préachán na gcearc = Ringtail, Préachán ceirteach = a kite

Bedel, 1662, Préachán na gcearc and Préachán ceirteach

[If you were to solely look at O Dónaill’s standard Irish-English dictionary (1977), you would see Kite (toy) given as Préachán ceirteach.  This can be traced back via, McCionnaith’s English-Irish dictionary (1936), to, O Neill Lane’s English-Irish Dictionary (1921), which has toy kite as Préachán na gceirteach.  This construct has no reference and nor is it included in earlier dictionaries.  Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary (1927) does not even mention toy kite. Eitleog is the normal Irish vernacular for toy kite.  In O Brien & Lhuyd’s Irish-English dictionary (1786), eitleóg is given as bat and there is no mention of toy kite.  So it appears that some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, scholars attached the previous name for bats or red kite to the newly arrived toy kite, which is rather appropriate when you consider their respective sheering flight patterns of each.]

This repetitive list shows that Irish speakers, from at least 1662 to 1927, regarded ‘Préachán ceirteach’ as a kite among a variety of other names for kites.  ‘Ceirteach’ means cloth, rag or clothes.  It infers ownership and possession of the cloths/rags by the kite.  

Préachán Ceirteach’ is not a mere translation from English, Olde English or Anglo-Saxon words.  It apparently reflects Irish-speaking people simply observing Red Kites carrying off rags and clothes, from around people’s settlements, to build nests.  Kite workers in Britain and Ireland can confirm that kites use items of wool, cloths, rags, gloves, plastic or rubbish to decorate nests – it is the best way to separate a kite nest from a buzzard nest. 

Shakespeare himself noted the same kite trait, when he said “when the kite breeds, look to lesser linen” – which is generally understood as a warning that during the kite nesting season, not to leave out your laundry to dry on the hedge, because the kite could snatch them for lining its nest.

An account from Phoenix Park

Phoenix Park dates back to 1662, when the Duke of Ormonde fenced off land north of the Liffey and established a Royal Hunting Park for visiting British Monarchs.  In 1669, Phoenix Park was stocked with deer, pheasant and partridge.  Colonel Edward Cooke, who was one of the keepers of the Park, wrote about the foxes, kites and poachers carrying off all the partridges.  The evidence of the presence of kites during the summer or connected with nest building is all we can legitimately expect, as they was little reason to systematically record the nests of non falconry birds in the distant past.


County Londonderry, Ireland, Civil Parishes Tamlaghtard or Magilligan (description from Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837.) (see www.from-ireland.net/lewsis/derry/tamlaghtard.htm)

The 5th paragraph states:  “some eagles breed in the heights of Benyevenagh; kites and hawks abound there”.  There are also references to the abundance of nearby rabbits [36,000-48,000 sold to the hatters] and pigeons.  This reference supports D’Arcy’s reference to the statistical survey of Londonderry (Sampson 1802), “Milvus, kite is frequently seen hovering over poultry”.

Kildare Poems 1330

On the web there are also references to Glede (Anglo – Saxon word for kite) from the Kildare Poems, written by the Anglo-Irish in the Middle Ages, sometime in the 1330s.  Look at ‘Satire’ section 5 and ‘Song of Michael of Kildare’ section 4. (see  http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E300000-001/text004.html)

St Colman’s Ducks

Under www.libraryireland.com/articles/DucksJoyceWonders/index.php  there is a mention of kites in the County Wexford Legend, “St. Colman’s Ducks”.  The tale tells of a group of ducks that were forded special protection by the dead saint in the 8th century.  A kite was once seen to fly off with one of the ducks, thought to be Teal.  It landed in a nearby tree and as it set about killing his prey, the kite fell to the ground and died – as witnessed by several people.

Irish Falconry

Liam Ó Broin, the author of The Sparrowhawk – A Manual for Hawking (ISBN no 09521029 00), self published, 1992, has carried out detailed research on Irish raptors.  His book contains a detailed account of the history of Irish Falconry.  He has uncovered documentary proof of Irish bred Goshawks being exported, to Spanish and Portuguese Kings, and foreign correspondence on how suitable the imported Irish birds were.  He also has evidence for Irish bred Hobbies being used and exported for falconry. 

The relevance of this point, as regards our kite inquiry, is that Goshawk and Hobby are not fully recognised in some of our primary ornithological reference books either – just like Red Kites.  Yet, there is archival literary proof that Irish bred Goshawk and Hobbies were collected and exported from Ireland for falconry.  Therefore the much vaunted seminal Ornithological accounts, from the middle and latter 19th century, have a limited temporal accuracy, as regards the status of many extinct or rare Irish Birds.  Our true native avifauna list cannot be solely defined by the safety and certainty of books written by our earliest exceptional Naturalists.  We need to look further afield.

Present Day Red Kite Ecology and Dispersal within the British Isles

Because kites survived for longer in parts of Britain, than Ireland, and because of a greater volume of written records, their former historical occurrence and abundance in Britain is more widely accepted.  As a result of a reintroduction programme, that began in 1989, on the Black Isle; during the 1990s, it was well established that up to 10% of first year Scottish Kites spent their first winter in Ireland. (See BTO Migration Atlas).

These records include released Scottish birds; poisoned in Laois, poisoned in Waterford, overwintering in Rogerstown, Dublin, overwintering in Tullow, Carlow and one poisoned near Glenarm, Antrim.  The released Scottish kites quickly established two dispersal routes to Ireland; one took them SW from Inverness through the Great Glen and down as far as Argyll and out to the Kintyre Peninsula and onward toward Rathlin and Antrim, the second route was used by kites from both the Inverness and Central Scotland release schemes, flying SW to Dumfries and Galloway and out onto the Rinns of Galloway, before crossing to Down and sometimes Antrim.  The subsequent Red Kite releases in Dumfries & Galloway and Aberdeen have also provided several Red Kite records in Ireland, from Donegal, Down and Wicklow - see Adam McClure’s recent RSPB Kite newsletter.  It is believed that all Scottish kites, wintering in Ireland, reach or pass through County Antrim or County Down.

The book and articles, that concern us, may contain two glaring contradictions, when examined closely.  Firstly,  consider the views, “were never here”, and then, “in the natural way of things, he argues, wandering juveniles can increase the range of their species ‘under their own steam’, rather than be repatriated by PR zealots” and “ get habitats right, he urges, and pioneering wanderers will find them - or not, as nature decides”.  Now, if wandering Scottish Kites could have found County Down by themselves, in the future, how come similar wandering kites, from a once vibrant Scottish population, never found County Down or County Antrim, a mere 35km or 20km away, respectively?  To infer that Gordon D’Arcy’s book “seemed to allow that kites might have roamed north from Leinster” is to miss the larger context of the kite’s former range.  Neither the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, nor the short sea crossing to Scotland, would have had little or no impact on the range expansion of the, once abundant, British Red Kite population.  The habitat condition would have been more pristine in the past.  There were several thousand years for this chance event to occur.  But of course Scottish and Irish Red Kites would have mixed in the past, if you consider all the evidence, including the influence of recognised historical oscillating weather patterns.

Secondly, it may be a contradiction to infer that, “since 2008, as he sees it, the provenance of any red kite in the Irish skies is forever tainted”.  Because the kites in Irish skies, up to 2008, were predominantly reintroduced Scottish kites.  Red Kites were reintroduced in Wicklow in 2007 and since 1990 reintroduced Scottish Red Kites, have turned up or passed through Northern Ireland annually.  It is unclear whether these kites are viewed, by the author, as tainted or not. If not, this apparent contradiction is not valid.  This argument goes back to 2001, when another well known birdwatcher complained that Golden Eagles in Ireland could no longer be positively ticked, because they were released birds.  So 13 years later, there are still competing arguments between the merits of restoring a native species over an individual birdwatcher’s annual tick list total. 

Summary of Historical Irish Kite Records

1.       The kite records in Ireland are from a wide geographical area, especially from the richer more afforested landscapes, east of the Shannon – ( See D’Arcy’s Lost Irish Birds, pages 49-55).  11 of the 32 counties, on the Ireland of Island, have former kite references including; Antrim, Derry/Londonderry, Cavan, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford.

2.       The material and documentary kite evidence in Ireland is spread over a wide time period, including the 6th, 10-11th, 12th, 13-14th, 17th, 18th and early 19th century.

3.       The Archaeological evidence, collected to date, suggests that Red Kites may have been the second commonest bird of prey in Ireland, historically.  Though this ranking could quickly change with future excavations, this concrete evidence of their former occurrence cannot be ignored or dismissed.

4.       Numerous Irish references suggested that Irish people were familiar with kite nesting traits and named the bird accordingly.

5.       The kite records in Ireland are found in several different languages including Old Irish, Latin, Middle Irish, Anglo-Irish, Irish and English.

6.       The kite records in Ireland, when examined and considered, demonstrate that kites were present throughout the year, in some parts of the country at least (Cork).  They were at least resident in the summer elsewhere – as they were a perceived threat to young goslings, ducklings, possibly young or newly released partridge.  They returned to an area outside of Belfast annually - when it was time to sheer the sheep.

7.       The extinction of the kite was probably due to sustained persecution, culminating in the eradication of a more exposed breeding population, after the almost complete deforestation of Ireland by 1800 (see Reading the Irish Landscape, Frank Mitchell, and the data on trade in timber exports and game rearing since Tudor times).

The primacy of the Oral tradition and the paucity of earlier written evidence in Ireland, compared to Britain, cannot be underestimated when searching for Irish kite records. The inherent limitations, of a variety of key reference materials, needs to be fully recognised.  For example, the bibliography for Holloway’s Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, only contains 11 solely Irish references from a total list of 693 references. 

If we did nothing, the reintroduced Scottish kite population, especially in Dumfries and Galloway, would establish itself in Northern Ireland within the next 30-40 years or earlier.  But what is ethical about waiting for a reintroduced population to wander and settle in Ireland?


(2) The Merits of Reintroduction

‘Don’t do that – do this’ is an age old argument.  This type of mindset could lead one to flippantly suggest, ‘why carry out any manner of conservation research, management or writing? – go trap some crows instead’.  In the mid 1990s, the IRSG was told by Dúchas that a national survey of Hen Harriers was a much greater priority than releasing Golden Eagles, so we were the catalyst in establishing and facilitating the first national Hen Harrier survey in 1998-1999.  Afterwards, another set of obstacles and priorities were placed in our way.  Now another labyrinthine argument, to focus on habitat work before species actions, is put forward.  There is a constant pendulum of effort, from species to habitat, among conservation priorities.  Many people try to work on both simultaneously.  But the kite habitat was already in situ – look at the expanding County Wicklow and County Down breeding kite populations. 

Of course there are difficulties, often with policies and enforcement, as well as habitat.  We were once advised to lobby former Agricultural and Environmental statutory management and seek changes to the poisoning legislation, as a prelude to a raptor release scheme, but it was a waste of time.  It took an official European Complaint to finally get the political consent to step forward, about 50 years, and finally tackle illegal poisoning in the Republic of Ireland.  What did the statutory authorities do, over two decades, to tackle the known plight of Buzzard poisonings in the Republic of Ireland, prior to the restoration programmes?  Despite notable exceptions, they did very little, in our view.  One ornithologist has even suggested the onus is on raptor workers to ensure compliance with statutory agricultural and environmental poisoning requirements, enacted by National and European legislation!

The spread of the Buzzard has been greatly enhanced by the increasing public awareness and tolerance of bird of prey and the poisoning issue, in the four corners of this island, largely initiated by the release programmes.  The loss of several Red Kites in Dublin, in 2011, has highlighted the underlying threat from Rodenticides, alongside Birdwatch Ireland’s Barn Owl research, and the ongoing cooperation with the Department of Agriculture on the matter, will also benefit Buzzards over time.  We can all appreciate the inherent value of more Buzzards, eagles and kites improving our natural world.  But that expansion was stymied for decades by an official indifference to poisoning.  Let us be honest about that and not simply ignore years of anti-poisoning campaigning by raptor workers.  The expansion of Buzzards is not merely a result of their natural range expansion dynamics – it was also the result of suppressing their primary constraint, namely poisoning.

Obviously many of us are demoralised and exhausted by the continuing loss of Biodiversity in Ireland.  But small patches of nature and semi-natural habitats remain across Ireland.  Yes, our terrestrial wilderness is long gone, but nature still sustains us and some of us like to think we can make a small difference. Does that mean we should give up?  Too often, Irish conservation has been in defensive mode, bemoaning the encroachment of competing sectors or trying to tackle yet another threat.  But at times, an assertive pro-active approach can be the best form of defence.  For too long, our society was indifferent or tolerant of the loss of species, and raptors bore the brunt of that indifference.  It would be naive to wait for the perfect moment to launch any bird of prey programme in Ireland.

A small band of raptor enthusiasts, North and South, are no longer content with centuries of “wildlife weeding”, which wiped out so many Irish birds of prey.  We submit that Irish birds of prey deserve a bit of effort NOW, after three hundred years of persecution, negativity and indifference.  Everybody has their own priorities and perspectives, which they are free to choose.   We are tackling poisoning, upland habitats, and policy issues as part of our work programmes.  It used to be said that former US President, Jimmy Carter, ‘could not chew gum and tie his shoelaces at the same time’ – hopefully Irish raptor workers can continue to do somewhat better.


Last modified on Wednesday, 23 January 2013 09:42