'Red Kites and Me' by actor Nick Miles
When I first landed a job in Emmerdale, playing Jimmy King, fifteen and a half years ago, I thought of myself as a relatively urban person. Like most actors, my life revolved around the theatre and cinema, most auditions and jobs take place in cities and large towns. The ITV studio where the Emmerdale interiors are shot is in Leeds where I got myself a flat.
The exteriors, however, are shot in a purpose-built fake village on the Harewood estate in Lower Wharfedale. This place, just twenty-something minutes north of the studio, became a magical land for me. A place where I learned the difference between swallows, swifts and house martins, where I could see boxing hares in the early morning field margins, and see deer, clashing antlers just by our facilities base car park. But, best of all for me, were the red kites.
In 1999 a reintroduction programme of red kites had taken place here, and as my friend Jim Hooten, who plays Sam Dingle, once observed: “We stand around talking bollocks all day, but one of those fellas comes over and suddenly everyone’s an ornithologist”. And he was right. Nobody failed to be enchanted by these majestic upland creatures hanging over us or wheeling in a thermal. I fell in love, and it occurred to me that I might exchange the city flat for something more rural.
I found myself a tumbledown cottage just inside the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The locals literally referred to it as “the tumbledown cottage”. This mistake (if mistake it was) could be remedied with the help of a friendly local builder. My other mistake turned out to be much more profound. My village, benefitting from close proximity to the river Ure and one of the largest hills in Wensleydale, is surrounded on three sides by moors managed for driven grouse shooting.
My newly purchased binoculars and big RSPB book of raptors were proving to be absolutely useless. Day after day I would clamber up my local hill and see next to nothing in the way of raptors. A kestrel after a few days, a buzzard after a week, mostly nothing. I discovered a beautiful walk, twenty minutes drive from my cottage, and located in Upper Wharefedale. Hope at last, surely some of the Lower Wharfedale Kites would have made the trip updale. After a year of doing this walk a late spring day provided me with two young kites. I was so excited I went back three days running and once again found nothing.
It turns out of course that North Yorkshire is home to some of the most lethally effective game keepers in the country. Poisoned rabbit carcasses litter the fields. Poisoned pheasant carcasses are stuck up in trees, often next to rights of way, satellite tagged birds disappear with increasing frequency, these men operate with a sense of impunity which is extraordinary given the criminality of their practices. Last spring I found a dead heron next to a poisoned rabbit carcass on the Bolton Estate. Last month (August) a game-keeper on the same estate was given a Bellamy Award for conservation. My mother recently sent me a card from the Cotswolds knowing I loved kites. Its picture was taken by Adam Tatlow of Cotswold Keeper Photography, I can’t say for sure that it pictures an illegal act, but nobody has been able to explain to me how that picture could have been taken without persecuting a protected species.
Friends started to take pity on me. Terry Pickford of the Northwest Raptor Group regularly invites me to the Forest of Bowland to look at Hen Harriers, the first I’d ever seen outside Scotland. We arrange to meet in a different car park each time so that he can avoid his car (known to the local keepers) being vandalised. Even as the criminal activity goes unpunished, the subsidies that we pay to support this Victorian barbarity are increased.
Last year Michael Gove quietly removed the cap on how much a landowner could be paid in subsidies for keeping their land “in farmable condition” which ludicrously includes grouse moors. Nobody dragged him onto the news to ask where the money was coming from, or if it might be better spent elsewhere. When I speak up for raptors I’m often accused of knowing nothing about the countryside, and in a way that’s true: I came to the English uplands, to a national park, expecting to see the creatures that belong here, but they’re not here.
As Mark Cocker says in his excellent book Our Place: “We are suspended in a landscape of losses. Living in this island entails awareness of a systematic haemorrhaging of life, complexity and texture from the very sweep of Britain. It implies a triple drainage of beauty, colour and meaning from our sense of place. In a way we are denied some of the simple pleasures entailed in our love for wildlife. For as Helen MacDonald has put it:
‘The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now than being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?’.
Actor and wildlife advocate