TWITCHERS are preparing to celebrate 25 years since endangered red kites were introduced to the Chilterns on the Oxfordshire border in a major breeding programme.

Five of the birds were brought into the area a quarter of a century ago and now numbers have risen to more than 1,000 breeding pairs across large parts of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Berkshire.

Now the once-endangered species has become so prevalent that staff at helicopter base RAF Benson near Wallingford said last month they might have to shoot the birds to avoid their helicopters hitting them.

As the 25-year anniversary of the breeding programme’s launch approaches, staff at the Chilterns Conservation Board say the project has been a spectacular success.

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Claire Forrest, of the Chilterns Conservation Board, above, which is based in Chinnor near Thame, said: “The Chilterns was picked as the first site for re-introducing kites in England because there is plenty of natural food for them to scavenge and places to nest in here.

“It is also nationally protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

“It wasn’t a certainty, though, that the project would be a success, so it is absolutely fantastic that the kites have done so well.”

Last month RAF Benson said it might have to shoot red kites after two military helicopters hit birds in the last two months.

The base was granted a licence by Natural England to shoot the birds but has not yet used it.

Ms Forrest, who lives in Thame, added: “We think people in the Benson area must have been putting out food for the kites and that has led to a big concentration of them in one area and we are asking people not to put out food because the kites can fend for themselves.

“The programme in the Chilterns has been so successful red kites have been taken from the Chilterns to be introduced in other parts of the country, including Gateshead in the North East and Yorkshire.

“The red kite has a five-foot wingspan so they are pretty unmistakable.”

Red kites have thrived so strongly in the Chilterns that nearly 300 young birds have been taken from the area to start the breeding schemes in other parts of the UK.

Ian Lewington, county recorder for the Oxford Ornithological Society, said red kites were now a familiar sight to the general public, not just birdwatchers.

The 49-year-old, from Brasenose Road, Didcot, said: “To see my first red kite I had to drive three hours to Wales in 1980 but now if I look out of my window I can usually see four or five.”

On August 1, 1989, in a quiet valley in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, five red kites were brought in from Sweden and released into the wild.

The project, to reintroduce a native species that had been wiped out over previous centuries, was one of the first in the UK. Over the next five years, another 88 red kites from Spain were released in the Chilterns.

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