There is significant evidence to show that white storks were once a breeding bird in Britain, with an archaeological record stretching back 360,000 years.
They’re particularly associated with the county of Sussex. The Saxon name for the village of Storrington, just nine miles from Knepp, was originally “Estorchestone”, meaning “the village of the storks”. A pair of white storks features on the village emblem. Other place names in the area, such as Storwood and Storgelond, evoke the stork’s historical presence.
Together with two other private landowners in East Sussex and Surrey, and in partnership with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, Warsaw Zoo and Cotswold Wildlife Park, Knepp Estate is helping establish a breeding population of free-living white storks in Britain once again.
Although approximately twenty migrant white storks are spotted in England every year, their unique breeding requirements mean that an active process of reintroduction is needed to re-establish them here. Successful reintroductions in France, Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland have demonstrated how this can be done, by building up a number of colonies in close proximity in a given region. This creates a kind of critical mass that makes the population viable.
From 2016 we began introducing a number of non-flying white storks imported from Warsaw Zoo into a fox-proof, mink-proof pen at Knepp covering about six and a half acres. Following the successful Alsace reintroduction programme, juveniles, bred at Cotswold Wildlife Park, were also introduced and their feathers clipped for the first three years so induce the birds to become loyal to the site. Every year more birds are added to each of the pens. When they have reached maturity, at around three or four years old, the young white storks are allowed to fly freely and forage in the surrounding landscape where they have begun to build nests and successfully rear their young.
Following our first successful breeding attempts in 2020, we were overjoyed to have seven nesting pairs in 2021 – six nesting in old Knepp oaks, and one pair on a chimney at Knepp Castle. Fourteen young successfully fledged from the nests and joined the free-flying birds.
More recently, we have begun to release first-year birds bred in captivity without clipping their wings to help encourage migration. Year-old birds are particularly adventurous and the most likely to embark on migration to continental Europe and N. Africa and interact with wild populations. Some of these first-year birds have already ventured to the continent, with several individuals reported as reaching Morocco. The migration route is fraught with dangers – pylons, busy roads, large stretches of open sea and, following the eradication of the great locust populations (a staple of the white stork), a dwindling supply of food. The mortality rate of migrating birds can be as high as 90%. One bird from Knepp has already gone to Europe and returned. Many more juveniles have flown to Europe and we hope they will return when they are sexually mature and ready to breed.
For those birds which do not migrate, evidence from Alsace and other parts of Europe suggests that southern England is suitable for a wintering population of storks ensuring that our colonies will continue to grow.
White storks like living in close proximity to people, building their large shaggy nests on roofs and church towers. In Europe they are so beloved, ubiquitously considered a sign of good luck, that people erect cartwheels on their roofs to attract them. Their nests provide opportunities for colonies of other birds such as tree- and house -sparrows.
Storks fly far and wide to feed. Omnivores and opportunists, they seek out small mammals, earthworms, snails, crickets and other large insects in water-meadows, grasslands and arable fields. By connecting people in towns and villages with the wider landscape in this way, the white stork, we hope, will become a charismatic totem for the regeneration of nature, and an inspiration for restoring wetlands and river catchments such as the Arun and the Adur.