Country diary: Kites and ticks, in ever-greater numbers | Birds

In the last weeks, hundreds of young red kites (Milvus milvus) have been making their annual tour of the West Country. Numbers reached record highs in Cornwall, with 188 recorded over Penzance, 371 over Marazion and an unprecedented 518 seen together over Pendeen.

The gathering has been taking place every May for about 15 years, with one- and two-year-old immature birds flying down the south-west peninsula. When they reach Land’s End, they turn and head east, scattering into smaller groups. They come from across England, Wales and Scotland; it’s thought the congregations are caused by older birds with established territories pushing youngsters out of the area when nesting begins.

Once so persecuted that they almost became extinct in Britain, reintroduction programmes mean that these raptors are widespread now in parts of Wales and central and eastern England. They can often be seen soaring over motorways, slip-sliding the wind currents with taut ease.

A dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis). Photograph: Doug4537/Getty /iStockphoto

But they remain rare on Exmoor. I was surprised to see seven in one day, riding the air above Oare Water. Their forked tails and elegant, angled wings were sharp cut against the sky, the sun burnishing their undersides chestnut-bronze. A few days later, 159 passed east over Porlock, circling for a while around the Hawkcombe phone mast on their way back from Cornwall.

The kite passage has synchronised with the annual explosion in numbers of a more harmful species – ticks. Last May, after walking my dog on the path beside Horner Water, I was amazed to find seven crawling through her fur. This year, after a similar walk beside the river at Watersmeet, I removed nearly 50.

Wetter weather and warm winters are creating ideal conditions for these blood-sucking arachnids, which wait in damp foliage, forelegs outstretched, to hitch on a host. Records show that numbers increased tenfold between 2000 and 2022, and tenfold again from 2022 to 2023. My unscientific dog test seems to indicate that they grew by a further 10 times last year.

The problem is that ticks can carry bacteria and viruses that cause debilitating illnesses, Lyme disease being the most common of these in people. Keep a tick removal hook handy.

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