Red Kites in Ireland were hunted almost to extinction and used to be a rare sighting. Reintroduction and conservation efforts restarted in 2008 in Wicklow and Castlewellan were followed by upgraded protections in the Wildlife and Natural Environment (NI) Act 2011. Now, professionals and enthusiasts are bringing both thrilling experiences and awareness to the public with the Wings and Warriors Red Kite Mountain Walk and Talk.
I’m an amateur etymologist with an endless fascination with the origins and evolution of spoken and written language in all its forms. So, I was delighted to read names like ‘Gullion’ and ‘Lúnasa’ used in Mourne’s aspiring UNESCO bid. If you’ve never been to Ireland, then watch the Dancing At Lughnasa movie, inspired by Brien Friel’s original play of the same name. It’ll give you an impression of the enduring landscape of Ireland – rocky shores, inlets, peninsulas, and vast, uninhabited inland stretches. Our famous ’50 shades of green’ are powered by a variable climate that can offer four seasons in one day during the shoulder seasons and all-year-round, yet somehow perplexing, rain that is the bane on the lips of locals.
We stumbled on the Wings and Warriors – Red Kite Mountain Walk and Talk after a Google search for something to take us outdoors locally.
Shelagh Henry of Red Kite Tours NI is the cheerful and enthusiastic guide on the walk, who kept us entertained at the various stopping points on a bleaching hot day with unusually clear skies – the perfect day for ‘raptors’. A lifelong conservationist, she talked to us of the history of Ireland and that area of Castlewellan including the humble grave of unknown warriors; pointed out flora and fauna; confided in us of with how she became inspired to work with red kites and share her fierceness for their protection; and recited poetry and Shakespeare. She also spoke with verve about the historical efforts to preserve red kites in Ireland, and the current protection efforts for red kites specifically in Northern Ireland.
The Red Kite Mountain Walk and Talk was made possible by the permission of the landowner who also owns the Red Kite Retreat. It begins at the carpark situated right at the entrance of the retreat. There is a super clean shower and toilet facility in the field adjacent to the car park. A little picnic area had also been set up for us with some drinks and snacks.
The walk tracks a little bit along the Closkelt Road, then turns sharply backward into farmland and up through several steep fields onto steeper, rough, stony mountainside. We stopped at several points, then continued our slow push up a rocky farm track for more history chat. Climbing a little further to almost the top of Dechomet mountain, we were rewarded with ever-astounding views over County Down and right across the full length of the Mournes.
The day we were there was over 20 C – boiling hot for NI. Walking boots are recommended. And, since there is little shelter, I’d recommend sunscreen and a hat (along with long, light sleeves) on warmer days, or a waterproof jacket for later in the year. As with all walks, take a small rucksack with a bottle of water and a snack.
The Red Kite Feeding Station Experience
Once we’d descended Deschomet mountain, we were led to the secluded red kite feeding station. We watched from a covered wooden ‘hide’ for about 30 minutes after the ranger placed fresh meat onto the feeding ‘table’ – a 1-foot platform in the centre of the field that operates as a feeding station for the red kites. The red kites – who simply somehow ‘know’ to rock up on the day in question – circled high and distant overhead like the ominous beginning to a Nordic Noir.
It was hard to see their exact outline against the grass with the naked eye, though their vast wingspan of up to 2 metres with scalloped wingtip feathers was unmistakable set against the bright blue sky. These raptors look huge even from a distance, their body reaching up to 66 centimetres in length.
Gradually, they descended, still circling – with some diving and darting back and forth to get a closer look at the food offering and to scope out the competition. Others sat close by on the ground, waiting for another to begin. Some interlopers – common buzzards, squat and clumsy in comparison – sat atop the meat or on fence posts nearby, unperturbed at the red kite horde of 30 or more raptors soaring above. With binoculars, we were able to make out their fat, splayed butt-tail feathers.
Swirling lower, they began to scoop the meat from the table in one deft movement, without breaking their flight. Some tried to take the food from others mid-air or chanced upon chunks dropped on the grass. This swooping and scooping continued another 15 minutes or so, then abated and started again. One buzzard remained on the table on guard, but was no match for the speed and grace of the red kites. Peeling off one by one to eat and take a break, they began circling overhead, then resumed the table diving – graceful yet determined, each in turn, not at all the frenzy and clamour we’d expected from such numbers.
Once our visit to the feeding station was over, I was ‘buzzed’ to see dragonflies on a walkway beside an entirely purpose-built, adjacent pond habitat.
A budding environmentalist primary school classmate first introduced me to the idea of birds of prey. Lorna’s farming family watched and nursed injured owls, buzzards, sparrow-hawks, and other animals. I didn’t get it then; I do now. The book of Matthew says, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin”. The same Biblical chapter tackles the big subjects of charity, prayer, forgiveness, love of money or possessions – and anxiety. Watching the kites on Saturday, my anxiety melted away as I considered God’s creation, quietly. Shelagh talked a little, then was quiet, encouraging us to do the same. The wisdom we really need to learn from creation can’t be gained while we’re still talking.
Information on Red Kites in Ireland
Book the Red Kite Feeding Experience on the Red Kite Retreat website. It starts at Red Kite Retreat, Closkelt Road, Castlewellan, County Down, Northern Ireland, BT31 9QF. You can also view many more photographs or book a Red Kite Tour on Red Kite Tours NI.
Find out more about the Red Kite Retreat for Red Kite Visitor Experience only (without the walk).
Take your binoculars and camera! You’ll want to get as close as possible a view of these large and graceful raptors.
All other photos, blogger’s own