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Report finds slow growth for red kites in Northern Scotland

Reintroduced red kite numbers are on the rise throughout much of Scotland, with at least 283 pairs in 2015, but a new Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) report has found the population in the North Scotland continues to grow more slowly than other reintroduced populations.

The report updates earlier work and suggests that illegal killing is still considered to be the main reason red kite numbers are not higher in North Scotland.

The report, commissioned by SNH and carried out by RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, found that, although not at risk of decline, the red kite population in North Scotland continues to grow very slowly. There are currently around 70 breeding pairs in North Scotland. The report shows that, had there been no illegal killing, there could have been as many as 1500 pairs. However, it also estimates that, even with this mortality continuing, there could still be around 131 pairs by 2024, and in the longer term, there could be around 550 pairs by 2044, although predictions are less certain over a longer time period.

Survival rates, and the proportion of illegally killed birds being found, were similar to the previous study. Of 57 dead red kites recovered between 2007 and 2014, 24 (42%) were confirmed to have been illegally killed. This compares with a figure of 40% of recovered dead birds confirmed to have been illegally killed throughout the period from the start of the reintroduction in 1989 up to 2006. Most red kites being killed are young birds, resulting in lower numbers reaching the breeding population. As a result, the population growth has been much slower than elsewhere.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

©Lorne Gill/SNH

Assuming the level of persecution remains unchanged, the study also assessed the impacts of a 2014 incident of illegal poisoning of red kites in Ross-shire as well as potential risks from wind farms. The incident in Ross-shire, in which 16 red kites were found dead with 12 subsequently confirmed to have been poisoned, raised fears of a significant impact on the kite population. The report found that when modelled as a one-off event, the Ross-shire incident had a relatively small impact in the short-term, but reduces the predicted 2024 population by 5% to 124 pairs and the estimated 2044 population by 7% to 513 pairs.

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said:

“It is of course, good news that red kite numbers are increasing in Scotland. But it must be said that it is extremely disappointing that this success is being lessened by illegal persecution of these magnificent birds.

“I want to be clear that wildlife crime is not acceptable in a modern Scotland and this is why we are doing all we can to end the illegal killing of birds of prey and working in partnership with stakeholders to achieve that. Scotland already has the strongest wildlife legislation in the UK and earlier this year, we accepted proposals to introduce tough new maximum penalties for those who commit crimes against wildlife.

“The Scottish Government has ordered a review of satellite tracking data – we want to make sure we are getting the most information we can on when and how birds are disappearing.

“Last year, we also funded the free pesticide disposal scheme which removed over 700kg of illegally held poisons in Scotland, to allow those still in possession of illegal substances to have them removed. I’m also seeing some really encouraging best practice from the farming community on the responsible use of rodenticide, which can be used by wildlife criminals to persecute raptors.”

Risks from collisions with wind farms were also modelled. At the start of the study, the predicted level of North Scotland red kite deaths from built and consented wind farms, and submitted wind farm applications, was two to three birds a year. This level of additional mortality could lower the predicted population by at least 8%, to 121 pairs in 2024, and by at least 13%, to 478 pairs by 2044. However, since the modelling work was carried out, some of the proposed wind farms have been refused or withdrawn. This has reduced the cumulative risk related to the number of developments to around 1.5 to two birds per year. At this level, predicted impacts on the kites will be lower than those in the report, but this could rise again if be more wind farms were proposed in future. The report concludes that future wind farm projects should continue to take potential impacts on red kites into account when planning their proposals.

A cause of death which has occurred more regularly recently has been the effects of accidental poisoning from legal rodenticides. This has led to the loss of some broods as adult kites feed them poisoned rodents. Land managers are advised to follow best practice for rodenticide use to minimise the risks of poisoned rodents being available to kites and other raptors.

The study also highlights a decline in reported sightings of wing-tagged birds in the North Scotland population. It’s important that both the general public and anyone monitoring red kites report sightings of tagged birds to the RSPB as the information is important to allow survival rates to be updated.

Eileen Stuart, SNH’s Head of Policy & Advice, said:

“Thanks to the work of many people, red kites in most areas of Scotland are thriving. We’ve made important strides nationally working together in the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW Scotland), but this report shows there’s still work to be done, particularly in the north of Scotland.

“The PAW Scotland Raptor Group will consider the report carefully and use it to help plan future actions. New powers have also been introduced in the last few years to fight wildlife crime, such as restricting general licences on properties where there is evidence of wildlife crime; and vicarious liability, which means land owners or managers are legally responsible for any crimes by their employees.”

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, said:

“The reintroduction of the red kite in the UK has been a huge conservation success story, contributing significantly to efforts across Europe to improve the status of a species, whose relatively small population is entirely restricted to this continent. This study indicates that the north Scotland red kite population should be much larger. Illegal killing is the principal threat, despite the fact that the red kite poses no threat to any land use interests. We call on responsible landowners to work with the police to help stamp out criminal practices which continue to cause such damage to important parts of our natural heritage.”

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