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Red Kite Reintroductions in the Iberian Peninsula

Reinforcing raptor populations in their southernmost range

Project information

The red kite (Milvus milvus), an iconic, graceful raptor has had a turbulent relationship with people over the centuries, from once being praised to almost going extinct in the UK. Translocated Spanish red kites saved UK populations last century but now their Spanish cousins are in severe trouble. This project is reinforcing the southernmost populations through reintroducing 90-100 red kites from the UK to Extremadura in Spain, over a 3-year period.


Project Timeline

May-Jul 2022-24

Birds are collected from the UK and translocated to Spain.

Jun - Aug 2022-24

The birds are cared for by the AMUS team at the aviaries in Spain then released.

Jun - Dec 2022-25

Conduct constant GPS monitoring of the released birds.

A Brief History

This keystone species fulfils vital ecosystem services as a scavenger and predator, features that have seen them receive both praise and persecution. In mediaeval London they were hailed for ridding the streets of disease. In the following centuries their fate changed as they were targeted for their eggs, hunted and poisoned to extinction in most of the UK. Translocating red kites from Sweden and Spain in the early 1990s revived the red kite in the UK and now itā€™s time to return the favour.

Before we look at the specific action plan of this project, here is more about the characteristics and behaviours of this keystone species.

Characteristics and Diet

One of the few raptors endemic to Europe, this medium-large bird of prey has a reddish-brown body and forked tail. Its impressive stature consists of a wingspan of up to 180 cm, which helps it to glide effortlessly for long periods. It weighs around a kilo, and stands at about 70 cm tall. All these characteristics enable it to dive at frightening speeds of up to 113 mph (180 kmh) to hunt its prey, which is mainly small birds and mammals. Carrion is another main part of its diet along with earthworms, but it can also include reptiles and amphibians.

Habitat, Population & Distribution

Although only previously thought to be an uplands species, we now know they are well adapted to lowlands too. Habitats such as open farmland, valleys or wetlands are where they can be found seeking food and in mature broadleaf woodlands to nest and roost.

The global breeding population is estimated at about 32 to 38 thousand pairs distributed across 28 European countries.

A red kite swoops through the air.
The Red Kite changes the angle of its distinctive forked tail to steer.

The Call for Help: Southernmost populations dive

Despite having a significant global population, over 90% of the breeding population is concentrated in only 6 countries - the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, France and Spain, with the final three of these countries reporting declines this century.Ā 

This project targets populations in the south of the red kitesā€™ global distribution in the Iberian Peninsula. This is where declines are most worrying and the species is listed as endangered with less than 50 breeding pairs.

A red kite leaving its aviary on the release day.
Monitoring released birds is vital to understanding and addressing their threats. At the aviaries, which our members are helping to fund, the red kites are fitted with wing tags to help with identification.

The Causes of Decline

The European Red Kite Action Plan lists the main threats (in order) to red kite populations in Europe as:

  • illegal use of poisoned baits (direct)
  • secondary poisoning (indirect)
  • shooting and capture
  • degradation and loss of habitat due to agricultural intensificationĀ 
  • food availability
  • wind farms
  • other contaminants in food
  • electrocutions
  • nuisance

From this long list of threats, the main global conservation concern comes from poisoning. Both direct and indirect poisoning are the leading causes of global mortality.Ā 

In Spain the situation is no different, where between 1990-2005 an estimated 14,000 red kites could have died from poisoning. Direct poisoning occurs as a result of conflict between red kites and hunters (mainly for partridges and rabbits), and also from livestock breeders of lamb.Ā 

Indirect poisoning happens when red kites consume contaminated carrion of predators like foxes, who are killed using EU banned products. Following these, the second most consequential cause of poisoning in Spain is through red kites scavenging on voles who have been killed using government authorised rodenticides. These chemicals are used to control booms in water vole populations.

a red kite to be reintroduced as part of the Eurokite LIFE project.
One of the birds to be reintroduced as part of this Eurokite LIFE project.

The Goals of this Project

The long-term goal of the project is to guarantee the survival of the red kite breeding populations in the Iberian Peninsula and maintain the global range of the species through the reinforcement of the population.

These goals were set at the last International Symposium of the Red Kite in 2018 to address the critical situation in the region. The areaā€™s remaining breeding pairs are mostly concentrated in the DoƱana National Park where there is a high rate of juvenile mortality.

Feasibility Study

Given the severity of circumstances at this pivotal point of the red kitesā€™ population in the region, itā€™s clear that there is a lot hinging on the success of this project. Therefore, a comprehensive feasibility study was carried out following guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of the Nature (IUCN) to analyse the 660,000 hectare project area in Spain for:

  • habitat quality
  • food availability
  • presence and control of potential threats
  • impact on donor populationsĀ 
  • other risksĀ 

Two external advisory committees, consisting of experts in red kite reintroductions and conservation, were then established, one of which reviewed the study and endorsed the project.

a portrait image of a red kite
A committee of 12 experts (from the UK, Spain, Austria and Italy) reviewed the feasibility study and endorsed the project.

Addressing the Threats

Establishing strategies and measures to protect against existing threats is key to the success of this project and was therefore a vital component of the feasibility study. The red kites in the project area face very similar threats to the species on a global scale. However, the study identified the following key threats, specific factors and protection measures on a local level.

Firstly, the study revealed that the primary threat to the red kites during the last 10 years has been shooting. To tackle this issue, an awareness campaign has been implemented across all the local hunting associations. Wildlife authorities of both the Extremadura and Andalusia regions are backing the initiative and the effort to combat the problem.

Anti-poisoning strategies are also in place for the region, even though thereā€™s been a decrease in poisoning in the last 10 years (and no or few records in the last 5 years). Again, the regionsā€™ wildlife authorities are committed to addressing this by sending out specialised teams using trained dogs and rangers to detect poison and investigate wildlife crimes. The study brings to light that there have been no recorded indirect poisoning events in the last decade in the project area.

To reduce the threat of electrocutions, the main electricity company in the area is involved by repairing and maintaining dangerous or potentially dangerous electric pylons.

Finally in terms of the threat of wind farms, they don't exist in the area nor are there plans to construct any.

a red kite being checked by vets
A collaborative effort is needed to conserve the red kite in the region. Here a team of vets check newly arrived kites from the UK, recording blood analysis, weight and wingspan.

Reintroducing Red Kites: from the UK to Spain

The direct rewilding intervention of this project is to translocate the first 30 red kites from the UK and reintroduce them to the project site in Spain. This journey begins with the first 15 birds, collected at 6-weeks old from currently strong red kite populations from different sites in central England by the RSPB, Natural England, and the Forestry Commission. British red kites are one of the most genetically similar populations to those we aim to reinforce. This is because British populations were previously reinforced by Spanish birds in reintroduction programmes over the last 3 decades.

The birds are then transported to the AMUS wildlife rescue centre near the city of Zafra where vets check them and record their vital statistics. This check-up is first and foremost about the birdsā€™ welfare but it also provides useful baseline data on newly arrived birds. From here, the birds eat, rest and acclimatise to their new environment before completing the last leg of their journey.

Once they arrive at their final destination, a private estate on the border between Spain and Portugal, the birds stay in purpose-built aviaries for several weeks before being released. In the aviaries they eat and grow until they reach a certain size and can take a GPS backpack and wing tag. This GPS logger attaches like a backpack with Teflon ribbons tied across the birdā€™s breast and weighs 25 grams.

Putting these measures in place will provide vital information after their release. For instance, should there be a bird mortality, the police and Wildlife Service will have access to data that can help identify the cause of death and inform the correct protocol to follow. Additionally, the wing tags will help to track the birds should the GPS fail and also create an opportunity for citizen science. By sharing their photos of the birds, citizens can engage and help gather data.Ā 

From the release site there is a chain of feeding stations which were set up to encourage the new birds to fly westwards. This is because we believe there are better feeding opportunities to the west.Ā 

a red kite being released from an aviary as part of the reintroduction programme in Spain.

The Red Kitesā€™ New Home

The intervention area for the release and monitoring of the red kites is in the Southwest of the Iberian Peninsula, where the Spanish regions of Andalusia and Extremadura border alongside the Alentejo region of Portugal. It is characterised by rolling hills and valleys of olive groves, plantations, vineyards, cereal, crops dotted with farmsteads and villages. Not only this, but there are also roads, train lines and electricity pylons running through the landscape.

This represents a difficult yet key challenge for rewilding projects alike - to integrate nature and people harmoniously. This is where we believe close monitoring through technology will play a big part.

a red kite fitted with a GPS tracking pack
The GPS system will allow our partners to track the birds and see how they interact with their new environment, providing valuable information to tackle any obstacles.

Partnerships, Stakeholders & Funding

Partners

The planning and delivery of this project draws on the expertise and dedication of our partners AMUS-AcciĆ³n por el Mundo Salvaje and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The enthusiasm and commitment of the projectā€™s manager, Afonso Godino of AMUS, deserves particular mention. He played a central role in getting this project off the ground after 4 years of hard work for a raptor he is passionate about protecting.

Stakeholders

For this project there is an impressive range of stakeholders on board to conserve the future of red kites in the region. Wildlife authorities in both Spain and Portugal are key stakeholders helping to ensure the long-term success of the project. The authorities in Extremadura and Andalusia (Spain) are partners of the LIFE project and the wildlife authority in the Alentejo (Portugal) are also involved.Ā 

Several local municipalities are also seriously engaged, with two having land management custody agreements for raptor conservation.

The list of stakeholders involved extends to livestock breeders, hunting societies and land owners/managers who are actively working in collaboration. Some of these have gained knowledge of raptor conservation from collaboration in previous projects.

The Funding

Most importantly, this project wouldnā€™t take place without the necessary funds. For this, a large portion of funding comes from the LIFE programme, the EUā€™s funding mechanism for the climate and environment. However, it did not cover the projectā€™s full expenses and this is where our members come in. Through our membersā€™ monthly contributions we were able to provide the remaining budget for the project which will go towards the costs of the aviaries, GPS equipment and the release of the birds. Conditions of Euro LIFE programmes generally require that the project team deliver 100% of the project to secure their funding or they could be liable to pay back the funds. This is why securing 100% of the funds is so important and the reason we are really pleased to step in and do so.

Nature-based Tourism

Thereā€™s hope this intervention will also stimulate more demand for nature-based tourism and attract a flock of birdwatchers to the area to observe the red kite take flight. In fact, the birdwatching tourist public body from Extremadura region, Extremadura Birding, is already in the process of creating a birdwatching product which will allow the public to experience the release of red kites. Initiatives like these are key to engaging communities whilst enhancing the local economy.

a birdwatcher taking a photo
This project presents an exciting an opportunity to engage local businesses and attract birdwatchers to the area.

What's Next?

As previously mentioned this project aims to successfully reintroduce and monitor many red kites to the Iberian Peninsula over the next 3 years. This means 33 birds in 2023 and again in 2023, then 34 birds in 2024. Constant monitoring throughout the project's duration and for one year after the final release aims to collect data that will help identify any threats and inform future conservation actions.

Watch the footage of the first red kite release in our project video (at the top of this page). Matt, our co-founder, was part of each stage of the process, getting up close to these beautiful birds as they took to the Spanish skies for the first time!

Matt Davis, co-founder of Mossy Earth, holding a red kite with a project partner.
Matt handling the beautiful red kite.
Final preparations on the morning of the release.

This Project is funded by

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