At 2pm every winter afternoon, and 3pm in the summer, something extraordinary happens in a field in the middle of Wales. It begins prosaically enough, a tractor puffing its way up a gentle, grassy slope. But its cargo is unusual: forty kilograms of beef. A farmer takes a shovel to the meat and starts tossing it onto the grass. Then the spectacle begins.
Gigrin Farm, near Rhayader
Today, I’ve come to Gigrin Farm with my husband and five year old son to witness the return of a bird that has made a remarkable revival. Mid Wales is a hotspot for kites, as I know – you often see them where I live, north of Abergavenny in Monmouthshire. To guarantee seeing them, there are dedicated feeding centres too. There's the Llanddeusant Red Kite Feeding Station in the Brecon Beacons National Park in Carmarthenshire, and the Bwlch Nant Yr Arian Centre in Ponterwyd near Aberystwyth. They’re also seen regularly at RSPB Cwm Clydach in the Swansea Valleys.
But it was here, on this 200-acre family-run sheep and livestock farm, one day in 1992 that Christopher Powell and his late father Eithel spotted a very rare pair of birds. 'It was completely by accident', Christopher remembers (we meet by the café an hour before feeding time). 'Our dog kept catching rabbits. And one day, there were two kites feeding on one of them. I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.' Powell is a gentle, quiet man, a typical Welsh farmer, but his eyes set alight when he talks about the birds.
I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.”
Father and son started to leave more carcasses out for the kites, plus offcuts from the local butcher. There were three pairs by winter. Then one day they had a call from the RSPB. 'I thought we were in trouble!' Powell smiles. 'But they wanted us to set up a centre together.' This was a leap into the unknown for the family, but they rose to the challenge. A rolling population of three to six hundred kites now come here to feed every day, and 20,000 visitors are now welcomed to the farm every summer.
We pass the farm’s other attractions as we walk down to the feeding site: a farm trail, guinea pigs, ponies and sheep, nature trails and a café. I also notice Gigrin’s Red Kite Rehabilitation Centre, run in conjunction with the Welsh Kite Trust, where ill or injured birds come to recuperate after veterinary care.
Then we come to the beautiful wooden hides. They are five of them, three with disabled access, all of them suitable for wildlife photographers. An underground hide is currently being built too, to get devotees even closer to the action. We settle down in the central hide, my bird-loving husband barely containing his excitement. My son enjoys the displays about kites on the walls behind us, and I learn a lot, too. I find out about how kites were pilloried for centuries as scavengers, and how bounty hunters and egg collectors nearly wiped out their species completely in the mid 20th century.
It’s 2.55pm. In the sky, kites are started to appear, whirling in wide circles. They know what’s on its way. The tractor slowly rumbles in, and the miracle happens.
For half-an-hour, we watch the incredible swoops and dives of hundreds of these beautiful birds. Their chestnut-red bodies are almost golden in today’s afternoon light. Their white and black wings look incredible in their detail up close, two metres wide in their span, fanning out in glistening black points. We see sharp, yellow beaks nipping and carrying their carrion, and catch flashes of their eyes (all kites have excellent eyesight to catch their prey). We also watch how the kites ward off marauding crows, both on the ground and in mid-air. My son draws a picture of them with his crayons. My husband’s jaw literally stays dropped. Watching the birds, I’m filled with adrenaline, admiration and awe.
Then ever so slowly, lunchtime finishes. We sit in the hides for a moment, almost breathless, wanting to watch it all again. Does Powell ever get tired of seeing them? 'Never', he says, very gently. 'It always feels like the first time.'
We know what he means. We also know we’ll be back, our hearts swooping and soaring for more.