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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Thomas

Red Kites' International Relations

The story of the red kite kite's reintroduction to Britain fits well with Andrea Schapper’s definition of international relations as ‘politics beyond borders’. This is  because, as part of the reintroduction project, red kites were translocated to Britain from Germany, Spain and Sweden by Natural England (a public body) and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (an NGO). And, as I’ll explain, red kites are now travelling in the other direction and being translocated from Britain back to Spain. 



Red kites are a large bird of prey who live throughout Europe and across into western Asia and north Africa. One of the many things which make red kites special is that they’re incredibly distinctive. Even if you find it difficult to recognize different types of birds you can’t miss a red kite. With their russet plumage, they’re ‘red’ in the way that we say foxes and squirrels are red. They have a forked tail, like a swallow, and, perhaps most distinctive of all, they have an incredible, lofting flight. The kites that people fly get their name from red kites because of the graceful way these birds soar. In many ways kites are an example of what we might call charismatic megafauna, they’re large, distinctive, recognizable and they elicit a strong response from people. But people haven’t always appreciated red kites.


In Tudor Britain, they were classified as vermin by the Preservation of Grain Act of 1532 because they were perceived to conflict with human interests. Bounties were paid for their killing and this led to widespread persecution. The development of game bird shooting intensified this persecution. Game bird shooting usually involves the captive rearing of birds like grouse, pheasants and partridges to be released and then shot. Gamekeepers were concerned that red kites were a threat to their young birds and therefore to game shooting so they killed them. And things got even worse in the Victorian era. Because red kites were becoming scarce they became a target for egg collectors and taxidermists. 

By the early 1900s red kites had been wiped out in England and Scotland. A small population survived in Wales but with only a few, possibly only one, breeding pair. So in 1903 measures were put in place to protect them, in particular guarding their nests to protect them from egg collectors. Despite this, the red kites' rate of recovery was very slow. This was for a couple of reasons. First, the availability of food in the red kites’ last stronghold in Wales was low. This made it hard for adults to feed and raise more than one chick at a time. Secondly, unlike most other raptors, kites are sociable – they’re content living near or with other kites  so, as their population grows, they disperse only very slowly into new territories. 


At this point conservationists realized that without intervention, red kites would face a slow, and even uncertain, recovery, so they decided to intervene. And this is where international relations and global politics come in. In 1990, red kite chicks were taken from nests in Germany, Spain and Sweden and released in England and Scotland. This international conservation effort required cooperation between the British government and the governments in Germany, Spain and Sweden, together with the RSPB in Britain and their counterparts in the other countries. For me, what this highlights most is that international collaborations are needed to conserve other-than-human species, especially species like the red kite who cross international borders – either as individuals when they’re seeking food, mates or territories, or as a species depending on where their range is. 


Since 1990, when the project to restore red kites to Britain began, red kites have flourished there, and their numbers continue to rise - there are now thought to be around 10,000 red kites in Britain. Meanwhile, red kite numbers in Spain are falling because of persecution and a shortage of food. So the tables have now turned and red kite chicks are now being translocated from Britain to Spain. As this shows, considering species at a global level has the potential to facilitate translocation projects, like that of the red kite. International agreements like this can allow species to be moved across borders so as to conserve geographically separate populations, and the species as a whole. 


The potential of international policy and action can, however, extend beyond thinking about animals and their conservation at species level. As Andrea suggests, we can also think about how international agreements and actions impact individual animals. A shift in focus from species to individual would require that attention is paid to how specific individuals are treated to achieve the overall goal of species conservation. This could include discussions about whether their rights to freedom and dignity are being infringed: as Andrea suggested such discussions could perhaps be facilitated if there were a Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to animal rights.  






 
 

Virginia Thomas is a fellow with the Animal Turn. She is also an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. Virginia is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence).


You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano).Learn more about our team here.  


 



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