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The great outdoors: Family project has helped bring majestic red kites back to the skies above Scotland

© ShutterstockA red kite
A red kite

I am heading south through the Sma’Glen on my way to Argaty, near Doune, a 1,300-acre estate owned by the Bowser family, who run the Red Kite Centre.

It’s a glorious morning and my drive is enhanced by blackcock on their lek, accompanied by an iridescent green sheen of wheeling lapwing overhead.

At Fulford, three red kites are riding the thermals high over a tapestry of ancient oak wood. Low sun paints treetops with a softly greening yellow; spring is late but now bursts forth in abundance. Following an extreme spell of intense cold, we are experiencing the hottest May on record.

This area is a favoured spot for the glorious red kite, ideal open farmland with perfect communal roost sites, and a good supply of small mammals and carrion. There are rabbits aplenty here and their unsuccessful games of Russian Roulette with cars leads to easy food for kites.

Kites are lazy, the ultimate scavengers. Over the years I have seen more and more here, and frequently watch them drifting into their roosts. It’s a sight that never fails to thrill for the red kite is one of the most glorious of all raptors.

It is likely that most of the birds I see have originated from the south from Argaty, as young kites are nomadic and have gradually established a thriving population here too. I stop. A cuckoo calls and over the moorland the haunting cries of curlew drift wistfully, whilst willow warblers and a chiffchaff, a whitethroat, and the magical song of a blackbird add to the morning’s orchestrations.

The kites sky dance using their distinctive forked tail as a rudder, steering themselves effortlessly with long wings, sun catching the magnificence of their plumage, the brilliant red-bronze-gold that gives rise to their name.

Turning off the dual carriageway and heading to Argaty is to enter another world. Perhaps time seems to be standing still, I cannot quite put my finger on it.

Huge ancient deciduous trees with sprawling limbs stand sentinel in parkland surrounded by woods carpeted with bluebells and stippled with the brilliance of stitchwort.

I stop again to inhale the scene. There are red squirrels here, and the first voice I hear is that of the nuthatch, a little bird that is making its presence felt increasingly further north.

This is the perfect habitat for this attractive apricot and grey bird sporting a highwayman’s dark eye mask. A large pond near the roadside is fringed with reeds and sedges, and a heron stands to wait patiently for its next repast. In summer dragonflies and damselflies take flight in abundance.

At the farm, I meet the charmingly effervescent Tom Bowser whose enthusiasm for his family’s project is apparent.

“For the first 13 years of my life the kite was entirely absent from this part of Scotland and now this is something I find very hard to accept,” he said. “The kite has defined my life. It is going to be so different for my four-year-old daughter as, for as long as she could speak, she has been able to identify a kite in the sky. That is quite something.”

Following centuries of persecution, the misunderstood kite was killed in vast numbers due to the perceived threat it posed to game and sheep interests.

It was also killed due to its sheer beauty to be added to the taxidermy collections that graced Victorian drawing rooms, whilst its feathers were used to make salmon lures. Between 1837 and 1840 the Glen Garry estate in Lochaber alone recorded 275 kites in their depressing so-called vermin tallies. By the end of the 1800s, there was not a kite to be seen in Scotland.

A few lingered on in parts of Wales, but due to low numbers, the birds needed help to re-colonise other parts of the British Isles.

“Between 1996 and 2001 in a joint partnership with SNH and the RSPB a total of 103 kites were brought to a secret location fairly close to Argaty.

“These were young birds from Germany and soon after this kites began to appear on the estate. They were favouring Argaty for a roost site rather than where they had been released.

“It provides such ideal habitat for them. I was 13 at that time and perhaps not very aware but then the birds began to nest here too, and everything began to change.

“In 1996 my parents Lynn and Niall, decided to turn the farm into a safe haven for the birds and set-up a joint venture with the RSPB, the Argaty Red Kite Project.

“For the first six months, a ranger’s wages were co-funded, though now we manage the project and the increasingly popular Red Kite Centre ourselves together with a few dedicated volunteers.

“Having worked away and done a few other things I have returned and I absolutely love my work here on the estate where there is so much potential to expand our wildlife enterprise.

“Our first ranger, Mike McDonnell, was an amazing mentor, who taught me so much, though you realise more and more that you never stop learning.”

Though the kite is now fully protected, there are those who still fall foul of the law and continue to persecute this and many other raptors. The Bowser family have had their share of gut-wrenching disappointment with wing-tagged birds missing or found poisoned or shot dead.

One bird had a miraculous escape and was resurrected by the dedicated staff at the SSPCA’s wildlife hospital at Fishcross, fitted with a tracker and successfully released back at Argaty.

It’s time to feed the kites. A line of eager visitors has congregated on the path heading to the hide while admiring Argaty’s bee garden, vibrant with spring blooms. Each afternoon visitors come to watch the spectacle. Sometimes in winter, there may be as many as 60 birds.

Volunteers are knowledgeable and today Vicki guides us up through a young deciduous plantation while Tom puts bait out.

“The amount of food we leave is very important and as you will see there is very little in this bucket.

“We have established a small, sustainable population and don’t want to overinflate numbers due to excess feeding. It’s important that the birds also find their own food.

“This must be part of their natural diet so we use a lot of road kill,” he added.

“Sixty birds are our highest number though not all of those, of course, will be breeding birds. In 2017 we had ten pairs raising 19 chicks. In good vole years, there may be more chicks.”

It becomes increasingly hard to stay positive about the situation in the natural world, and devastating to accept that the British Isles are recognised as one of the most biodiversity depleted countries in Europe.

Yet as I sit and watch the birds here, I marvel that this is one of the finest examples of a great conservation success story.

This once despised raptor has indeed returned from its brush with extinction and the Bowser family should be proud of the part they have played in its safe return to our skies.