12 May 2023

The UEA alumni story of saving the red kite in the UK

Mike Pienkowski holding Red Kite book
Dr Mike Pienkowski with his new book on the revival of the Red Kite

Dr Mike Pienkowski studied Biological Sciences at UEA from 1969-1972. He has been involved in research and conservation for over 50 years. He was one of the founders in 1970 of the International Wader Study Group and, as Chairman, coordinated its international conference in Ukraine in 1992, resulting in the Odessa Protocol on international co-operation on migratory flyway research and conservation. In 1984, he became Head of Ornithology at the Nature Conservancy Council where he initiated the Experimental Reintroduction of Red Kites to England and Scotland. Since 1995, he has donated his time as Chairman of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.

In medieval times they [red kites] were street cleaners – they removed carcasses and were very welcome in London and elsewhere.

How did you discover UEA and why did you decide to study here?

I became interested in studying shore birds in my spare time as a school student. The best places in the country for watching shore birds were The Wash and Morecambe Bay. So, quite simply I felt I had a choice between UEA and Lancaster University and I preferred the UEA campus. My headteacher at school was very keen on us applying to Oxford or Cambridge, but I wanted to create traditions rather than follow them, and UEA was an exciting place.

How did you find studying Biology at UEA?

My interest was in studying wildlife. You chose your specialisms after two terms and the staff were all rather shocked when about half of the 100 students opted for ecology. They didn’t really have a full-time ecology lecturer at the time – people overlapped into ecology and some research students taught too. 
I was also very grateful that UEA already had a strong expedition tradition. I was able to organise two expeditions to Morocco to study the migration of shore birds. We were trying to identify specific bird populations and this was before DNA testing – so we had to identify by observing physical characteristics. There was a lot of freedom to the study which I really appreciated. 

Mike and friends on an expedition
Mike and friends on an expedition

And what did you do after leaving UEA?

I started working freelance on the Yorkshire/Durham border – there was a massive inter-tidal reclamation underway and there was a contract available to go and predict the effects there. After that I went to Durham University to do a PhD there. We had a really good little research team there working on shore birds led by the late Professor Peter Evans.

You’ve observed British habitats for a long while now. Are there reasons to be optimistic or is the situation bad?

It's mixed. There are success stories – like the red kite – but on the other hand there is still an overall decline in wildlife. A lot of the data does come from birds because so many people count them as a hobby, but there we’re seeing a big drop in numbers. You can actually see a sequence of decline of different species based on how dependent they are on the wettest areas. Snipe, for example, have declined hugely and they’re in the very wettest areas, and many other species are following. 

And how did you become involved with the red kite?

It was when I was Head of Ornithology at the Nature Conservancy Council. The 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act had created an enormous bureaucracy, and made it look like the Council was always opposing projects. We needed something to pull people in and help balance the negative perception. We looked for a globally threatened species in Britain to help.

And the more we looked at red kite, the more we realised it wasn't just in Britain that it was suffering – it was suffering in its entire world range, essentially Europe. If we could do something about it, it wouldn't just be a benefit in Britain, it would actually be a benefit to the whole world population. My colleague in the RSPB, Richard Porter, was leading on their side and we pulled a few others in.

We started checking all aspects of the proposal in 1985 - feasibility, scientific, legal, financial and everything else. And then in 1989, we imported the first very kites from Sweden. They were flown over by the RAF – a visit to Nordic countries fitting in with their marine search and rescue mission. 

A red kite in flight
A red kite takes its first flight out of its rearing cage.

And so how did the project go?

The first year went very well. We proved we could do it. We reared them, they grew properly, they became independent. We lost a couple to poisoning and we made a lot of noise about that because we didn't want to lose any. The police took it seriously and we got a conviction which only helped us with publicity to help reduce this illegal activity. 

Earlier thinking was to assume that where they were last seen was the best place for them. Actually, it was just a place where people were slightly less nasty to them. The west of the country isn't the best for them to breed – it’s relatively wet.

We suspected that the remaining red kites in Wales had been isolated for so long that they were not genetically diverse. We found out that they were indeed as closely related as one family. However, as soon as we started releasing kites in England they started intermixing. The productivity of the Welsh kites started going up as well because of increased genetic flow into the system. Slowly, the population became healthier.

We’ve recently sent some pairs to Spain because they'd had a decline. So, it's nice to complete the circle and be able to help the wider European populations, Spain having 30 years earlier supplied most of the kite chicks reared in England.

Why have red kites captured the public imagination?

They’re an incredibly attractive bird. They’re big in wing area, yet very buoyant and graceful in the air – they manoeuvre around very easily. In medieval times they were street cleaners – they removed carcasses and were very welcome in London and elsewhere. Their recovery is also quite inspiring and lots of people have now seen them.

The Red Kite Book
The book Mike has written about the Red Kite's revival

And how did the book come about?

The conservation experiment ran until 1995. By then, we’d proven that the kites could not only survive, but they could actually reproduce faster than the original Welsh pairs. We handed the project over to various groups around the country.

I then started writing up the project on and off, and I came back to it most recently during lockdown. I was giving some online lectures to some American universities and people told me I really should go and finish that book and so I sat down and did.

I now voluntarily chair the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum charity. As both NGOs and UK Government have pointed out, 95% of the UK’s globally important biodiversity is in its Overseas Territories. But those territories do not have many resources for nurturing this biodiversity and we want to help. All the proceeds of the book are going to the charity. We need to spend more on conservation in this country, but we need to spend several orders of magnitude more than that in our Overseas Territories. 

Mike studied BSc Biological Sciences at UEA.

The book “When the kite builds… WHY and HOW we restored Red Kites across Britain” is available on the UK Overseas Conservation Forum website.