Recently I paid a visit to Fineshade Wood, part of Rockingham Forest and one of Northamptonshire’s largest woods. Amongst many other claims to fame, Fineshade was selected as a new home for one of three or four small groups of Red Kites that were re-introduced into Great Britain in the 1990’s.
In mediaeval times the Red Kite was very common across almost all of Britain. In fact if you killed a kite you ran the risk of the death penalty as retribution and not without good reason.Red Kites were the mediaeval refuse collectors – thriving on all kinds of human waste and helping to keep our villages, towns and cities habitable. You could say that they were the equivalent of vultures in urban areas across the developing world today.
In modern times as cities grew cleaner the kites became rarer as food supplies dwindled. Shakespeare told us to beware their habit of snatching ‘smalls’ off the washing line to decorate their nests but in reality they were persecuted and destroyed in the countryside because landowners and gamekeepers believed that their large size and hooked beak meant they were a threat to livestock and game.
By the early years of the last century there were just a handful of pairs left – all confined to a few steep sided valleys in central Wales. Changing times and fashions had destroyed the kite’s reputation and yet the creature itself continued to feed almost exclusively on carrion and earthworms.
The Red Kite re-introduction programme is now one of conservation’s great success stories. You can nearly always see them when you travel on the M40 through the Chiltern Hills. And in Fineshade wood I saw a beauty. The creature was silhouetted at first – all long wings and deeply forked tail. And then the sun caught its body and brought a mix of colours to life including the rich reddy-browns that give the kite its name.
One moment the Kite was seen as a vital friend; the next a deadly foe – and yet the bird itself never changed! The Red Kite is for me (with my crisis PR hat on) perhaps a rather extreme reminder that none of us can rest on the laurels of our reputation. Changing circumstances make such a policy very risky in the corporate world as well as the natural world. Thankfully for the kite, dedicated conservationists have restored its reputation and are helping it to rebuild its population - not everyone is so lucky!