One of the most fantastic spectacles anywhere is a huge gathering of birds – especially birds of prey. Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales probably has the biggest gathering of red kites anywhere. And you get so much closer to them here because of the hides/blinds.
Red Kite can be seen across most of Europe – distribution map here – usually in small numbers, up to half a dozen, but occasionally dozens of them together at food resources like rubbish tips. I thought the dozens of birds floating over the rubbish tip at Reinosa in northern Spain was pretty impressive when I saw it in 1989, but that pales by comparison.
The late Mr Powell started feeding the kites on his farm in the 1980s, and the farm became an official feeding station open to the public in 1992/93. There were six red kites regularly using the area at the start, but by 2015 six hundred wasn’t an unusual number.
The feeding station is located near Rhayader, in central Wales. It is surrounded by mostly livestock farming – often the only viable farming in this cool wet climate, but is close to the large reservoirs of the Elan Valley (supplying water to cities such as Birmingham), forestry plantations and open hill country.
But why feed kites? Can’t they find their own food?
Kites are basically scavengers, large but lightweight birds that float on air currents looking for scraps to eat – though they can kill small prey if they have to. They are not strong enough to open a carcass of any size, and have to wait for a raven, crow or buzzard to do that before they can feed.
There aren’t many carcasses left on the land these days – farm hygiene and bio-security mean that such things are cleared away, buried, etc. So young kites in particular have difficulty finding enough food, therefore survival rates were low.
Kites start looking for food when they wake up hungry in the morning. At Gigrin food is put out in the afternoon, so any bird that has fed well doesn’t need to come here for more. But those that are still hungry, know where to find supper.
Kites begin gathering over the site an hour or so before feeding time. It looks impressive then, and you can hear their long drawn-out whistling calls. When everybody is settled in the hides, a tractor appears, stops in front of the hide, the driver gets out and starts shovelling lumps of meat onto the ground. Almost immediately, one or two kites swoop in for a closer look, maybe even pick up a piece or two. The tractor moves to another part of the feeding field, and more meat is thrown out. By the now, the number of kites is increasing, and more and more are coming closer. The birds rarely land, just grab a piece of meat in passing. Sometimes one will try to grab a bit from another bird.
The spectacle lasts for 30 minutes or more. As the food is taken, kites begin to drift away, although there are usually still a few hanging around after an hour or more.
Red kites were once the cleaner-uppers of cities and countryside, until someone decided they were vermin. Then they were persecuted until only a few pairs remained in the isolated hills of Wales. Following decades of hard work – much of it by volunteers – kite nests were monitored and protected. The small population meant that there was little genetic diversity, and so this protection was only half the story of their recovery. The other half came when a bird of German origin, and probably migrating off-course, paired up with a Welsh bird and injected some new blood into the population. Now, that has been augmented by birds reintroduced elsewhere in the UK from Spain and Sweden.
Red kites are now seen across much of Britain (they occur naturally across the whole of Europe), and I don’t need to go to Gigrin to see them (sometimes one even passes over my garden). But it’s still worth stopping there occasionally to see this spectacle – it’s about a two-hour drive for me, so a convenient stopping place on a long drive north.
Of course, there are other birds to be seen at Gigrin. Buzzards (above), crows, rooks, ravens, and jackdaws all regularly join in the feast. Small birds – finches, sparrows, tits, wagtails, etc – are found around the farm, and particularly at the feeders by the car park.
Wildlife trail around the farm
In summer, there is a trail around the farm. It leads past the top of the kite feeding station to a small hide overlooking a small wetland. Then across a field or two to some high level ponds, where a path branches off to up onto the moorland. You then wind back across a couple of fields and down through a small dingle to the kite feeding hides. There is a badger sett on the farm, and polecats and otters have both been seen recently.
You may also see birds such as goshawk, black cap, dipper, hen harriers, redpoll, skylark, kestrel, woodcock, curlew, merlin and many more.
The small cafe is a good place to round off your visit – particularly on a cold winter’s day.
Gigrin Farm website – check opening times before visiting.
Other red kite feeding stations
Opened in 2002 by a local partnership with support from the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Welsh Red Kite Trust and various other notable wildlife organisations and individuals. Visitors may sit in the specially built hide only feet away from diving birds and observe them competing naturally for the food provided by the feeding centre at regular times throughout the year.
In 1999, Bwlch Nant yr Arian became a red kite feeding station as part of a programme to protect the small number of red kites in the area at that time. Nowadays, the red kites are fed by the lake at Bwlch Nant yr Arian every day at 2pm in winter (GMT) and at 3pm in summer (BST). The Barcud Trail (an easy access route around the lake) and the café offer fantastic views of this spectacle. There is also a bird hide overlooking the feeding area.
A feeding site in Perthshire
A useful leaflet about where to see kites in the English countryside of the Chilterns (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire).
Most sites now require advance booking to ensure that only a safe number of people can visit a site at a time. Details are on the individual websites, along with feeding times and details of all facilities available.
The websites of several other feeding stations are not available now, so these are no longer listed here.
If you come across other red kite feeding stations, in any European country, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.
The charity dedicated to the conservation of the red kite and other raptor species in Wales. Information about how to report a wing-tagged bird,
Where to watch birds in Wales – out of print – 5th edition due in 2022
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Other posts about Wales
Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.
Skomer Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire is a fantastic place for puffins and other seabirds, seals, plants, and a generally good day out. This article is about how to get there.