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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Kites, Cranes & Storks

Following on from my first blog about Poitou Donkeys and Pyrennean Mountain Dogs, I am now turning to three birds and their rewilding programmes and history.

The story of the reintroduction of Red Kites is a success story that might yet prove over successful, as since their rewilding they have spread far and wide from the original site in The Chilterns in The Nineties.

Red Kites were a common sight, especially in urban areas, in medieval England. They ate vermin and offal, in fact almost anything. In Elizabeth I's reign we are told that there were large numbers of red kites in London who were eating the rubbish found in the gutters of the city, rather like pigeons today, or, where I live on the coast, seagulls. Shakespeare in Coriolanus ( my Shakespeare text for GCE) refers to 'a city of red kites and crows'. It is thought by some that Shakespeare is referring to London; almost certainly he is because he drew on local knowledge throughout his plays, particularly of Warwickshire and of London, his two home towns.So important were red kites to medieval hygiene that they were granted legal protection.

This position changed in early modern England where an increase in their numbers, probably linked to greater urbanisation and an expansion in agriculture, led to them themselves being classified as vermin. This in turn led to their extinction in the mid 19th century.

My favourite place for seeing this magnificent bird is on the M40 as it sweeps down from Buckinghamshire, through a spectacular cutting, to the Oxford Plain below.

There was always confusion in the past as to which particular bird is being mentioned. This is particularly so with the case of cranes, for that word was used to apply to herons as well. Although in fact the two birds are quite distinct.

There is, however, a Tudor Act of Parliament from 1533 making the taking of cranes' eggs subject to a fine of 20d. In the Household Book of the L'Estrange family there are a number of references to cranes being in the larder, between the years 1519-33.

In medieval times cranes were considered a great delicacy and there is an account from 1465 of the Archbishop of York serving no fewer than 204 cranes at a banquet. But it is clear that by the end of the Tudor period cranes were scarce indeed, overeating?

There is a lovely reference to the cooking and eating of cranes and other 'exotics' in John Russell's 'Book of Nurture' (1450):

'Sauce gamelyn to heyn-sewe, egret, crane, and plover,

Also brewe, curlew, sugre and salt, with water of the ryveres

Also for bustard, betowre and shovelere, gamelyn is in sesoun,

Wodcock, lapewynk, meternet, larke and venyson,

Sparrows, thrushes, all these with salt and synamon.'

I don't somehow, in 2020, fancy 'water of the ryveres', but a larke in sugar and cinnamon sounds intriguing - although under EU regulations unlawful, and, despite leaving the EU, I doubt if any British Government will bring this back onto the national menu!

There is currently much excitement in my part of the world, Sussex, with the return of nesting storks. This is on the Knepp Estate where the first breeding pair bonded in 2019 and are back again this year. This is all part of a national rewilding programme for storks. The last historical record of a breeding pair of storks in Britain dates back to 1416 and St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

When I chaired a Council of Europe Working Party in Strasbourg in the late '80s and early '90s I used to love walking in the adjacent park at lunchtime to enjoy the site of these fantastic birds and their great nests.

Clearly the more storks we have by the end of this pandemic the better, because they are clearly going to be busy delivering babies!

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