Red kites defy the illegal poisoners but they're not out of the woods yet

The number of red kites in Scotland has soared to its highest level for at least two centuries, with numbers increasing across much of the country.

According to RSPB Scotland, the iconic species - which was wiped out in the 19th century - is continuing to make a slow recovery after a re-introduction programme began in 1989.

During this year's breeding season, fieldworkers located 166 breeding pairs, 17 more than in 2009. At least 291 young birds fledged over that time, a rise of 57 on the previous year.

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Red kites have been thriving in England since the re-introduction, but the recovery has been much slower and has even stagnated north of the Border.

Conservationists also warn that the birds are still under threat in Scotland from illegal poisoning. This year has seen six poisoned: three in the Highlands, two in Tayside and one in Dumfries and Galloway.

The RSPB says that while many landowners have played a positive role in helping revive the fortunes of this species, a minority continue to cause serious problems by the "indiscriminate and illegal use" of poison baits, mainly on driven grouse moors in the eastern and central Highlands.

The charity has also raised concerns about the discovery of 11 dead well-grown young in nests on the Black Isle. They were found to have died as a result of ingesting prey killed by rodenticides.

The use of approved rodent-killing products is legal, but it is a requirement to use the poisons under cover and to pick up any dead rodents, to avoid secondary poisoning incidents.

The severe weather has posed another problem for the birds, with a number heading west in December to the Inner Hebrides in an attempt to escape the heavy snow and ice.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, of RSPB Scotland said: "The red kite's fortunes in Scotland are now better than they have been for many years. However, there are still challenges to overcome if this bird is again going to be as widespread as was once the case.

"The main factor hampering full population recovery remains the indiscriminate and illegal use of poison baits, with adherence to best practice standards for rodenticide use a secondary issue.

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"We also don't know what effect the harsh conditions at the beginning and the end of the year will have had, but based on previous experience the birds can move short distances to avoid snow and then return as weather improves".

Red kites are now regarded as tourist attractions, bringing significant benefits to the areas where they can be seen.

A recent economic study found that visitors to the Galloway Kite Trail in Dumfries and Galloway have spent at least 21 million since the project began in 2004.Andrew Stevenson, of Scottish Natural Heritage, said: "We welcome the continued increase in the Scottish population, particularly the small increase in the Ross-shire population.

"We would echo the need for ensuring that rodenticides are used responsibly, especially with regard to ensuring dead rodents are not left lying around."

The reintroduction programme began in the Black Isle, followed by similar projects in Stirling and the Trossachs, Dumfries and Galloway and Aberdeenshire.