I can hear the seagull-like calls all around as I carefully make my way up the grassy path towards the bird hide. The piercing sound begins to get more intense. I stop for a moment or two and peer through the light drizzle at the pines at the far end of a rolling field. I see nothing but I know I am being watched.
The roar of an engine suddenly breaks the still damp air and a quad bike appears on the brow of the hill. It stops briefly, deposits a chopped rabbit carcass onto the ground, and then makes its way to the wooden hide where I’m waiting with a small group of visitors from Yorkshire. The driver is Mike McDonnell, the head ranger of the Argaty red kite experience at Lerrocks Farm near Doune, and the bait he has just laid is the equivalent to lighting blue touch paper for red kites.
Literally within seconds of his arrival the swooping forms of several kites appear above the field; rising, falling and tumbling. It is a quite spectacular sight as they continually sweep this way and that over the dead rabbit. A small group of crows and magpies has also quickly gathered to grab their share of the spoils and it is a race against time for the kites to be nimble and agile enough to swoop down to snatch a morsel.
As I watch the aerial acrobatics of these magnificent fork-tailed raptors, I can’t help thinking that this is wildlife tourism at its very best and a remarkable example of how a working farm can benefit from the nature around it. It is also part of the astonishing story of the resurgence of the red kite in Scotland following its extinction in the late 19th century after decades of relentless persecution.
An initial release programme co-ordinated by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage between 1989 and 1993 in the Black Isle, north of Inverness, involving young kites from Sweden was followed-up in 1996 by another reintroduction scheme in central Scotland using German birds. Farmers and keen conservationists Niall and Lynn Bowser were only too delighted at the time that their farm near Argaty on the Braes of Doune was near the release site for this second introduction round.
At first the intention was to keep the reintroduction area secret during the crucial early years but it soon became apparent that this was impossible, given that kites are prominent and not particularly shy birds. Instead, a totally different tack was adopted, with Niall and Lynn opting to work in partnership with the RSPB to create a viewing and feeding area where people could obtain excellent views of these impressive birds of prey.
According to Mike McDonnell, who was part of this initiative from the beginning, the results have been incredible and today the Argaty red kite experience attracts more than 5,000 visitors a year. The number of kites in central Scotland has also increased dramatically over the period and there are now around 70 breeding pairs stretching over a 45 mile area.
“Make no mistake, this is a proper working farm that has more than 600 sheep and 90 cows, and which also has a small pheasant shoot,” says Mike. “But it is also an operation that has grasped the opportunity of working in tandem with nature so the general public can enjoy one of our rarest and most beautiful birds.”
Mike says the kite feeding is a carefully controlled operation, with only a very small amount of food put out for the birds each day. “These are wild birds that catch their prey naturally and we don’t want them to have any sort of dependence on artificial feeding.”
Although most visitors tend to come in the summer (when there is also a live CCTV nest-cam), the most spectacular viewing is actually in the autumn and winter when up to 40 kites can gather at one time. “Many visitors describe it as a truly jaw-dropping experience to see so many kites in the air at once,” says Mike.
Other successful kite reintroduction schemes have since taken place in south-west Scotland and Aberdeenshire, and it is now hoped that these various separate populations will eventually link up to provide a relatively continuous nationwide distribution. There are already signs that this is happening, and judging by the excited reaction of the Yorkshire visitors as they watched the tumbling kites from the Argaty bird hide, this is great news for Scottish tourism too.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West