Red kite chicks have hatched in Ulster for the first time since the species was hunted to extinction more than 200 years ago.
Five chicks fledged this summer after four young pairs of red kites bred in forests, the RSPB revealed.
It was the culmination of Northern Ireland’s first species re-introduction programme in which three groups of red kites were reared in Wales and ferried to Co Down to be released into the wild.
Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew watched yesterday as the third and final group of 27 kites launched into the skies over Co Down, bringing the total number of birds released over the past three years to 80.
Most of the magnificent birds of prey have stayed in the area and are becoming a familiar sight in the skies over the Mournes. Three have crossed into the Republic and 11 have died. Of these, three were poisoned and one shot.
“These chicks are homegrown and a significant landmark in the reintroduction of the species,” RSPB NI director Dr James Robinson said.
“Their successful hatching and fledging is the realisation of a dream to bring back these birds that began more than five years ago.”
But there is still a long way to go, he insisted.
“These five new chicks are just the start of this journey. To ensure that our population is sustainable, there needs to be at least 50 breeding pairs,” he said.
Red Kite project officer Robert Straughan said eight of the birds released in 2008 successfully bred.
“We hoped they might breed this year. Red kites don’t usually breed at one-year-old but they can breed at two years,” he said.
“This year we had four pairs which have reared five chicks. We couldn’t have dreamed that it would have such a successful year for the kites and it’s thanks to a lot of hard work from everyone.
“I’ve known about these chicks for a while be we were keeping it under wraps because we didn’t want to make a big splash about it in case they failed to survive. But now we are ready to tell everybody the good news. It’s a really exciting time for us to see the first chicks in the region for the last 200 years. We have released 80 birds in total and hopefully that should be enough to start a breeding population.”
Minister Gildernew said the news was another step to enhancing local biodiversity.
“The red kite reintroduction programme is a good example of the public and voluntary sectors, alongside farmers, working together to protect the environment,” she said.
Tony Cross of the Welsh Kite Trust which supplied the birds said: “It is brilliant that the red kite is once again a breeding bird in Ulster.”
Dr Robinson thanked the RSPB’s partners, including the Welsh Kite Trust, the Golden Eagle Trust and Forest Service.
The Environment Agency, councils, the Ernest Kleinwort Foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation and Heritage Council also supported the project.
He added: “Last but not least, our volunteers and members deserve our thanks — without them none of this would be possible.”