Taking Flight: Reconnecting with a wilder Britain
There is significant evidence to show that White Storks were once a breeding bird of Britain, with an archaeological record stretching back 360,000 years.
White Storks are particularly associated with the county of Sussex. The Saxon name for the village of Storrington, near Worthing, was originally “Estorchestone”, meaning “the village of the storks”. A pair of white storks still features on the village emblem. Other place names in the area, such as Storwood and Storgelond, evoke the stork's historical presence here.
Together with a number of private landowners in West Sussex, East Sussex and Surrey, and in partnership with the Roy Denis Wildlife Foundation, Warsaw Zoo and Cotswold Wildlife Park, Knepp Estate is helping to establish a breeding population of free-living White Storks in Britain once again.
Although approximately 20 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.
At Knepp we have built a fox-proof, mink-proof pen covering about six and a half acres, and introduced a number of White Storks imported from Warsaw Zoo. Using techniques from the successful Alsace reintroduction programme, the flight feathers of the juveniles will be clipped for the first three years until the birds become loyal to the region and lose the urge to migrate. Every year more birds will be added to each of the pens. When they reach maturity, at around three or four years old, the young White Storks will be allowed to fly freely and forage in the surrounding landscape where, it is hoped, they will begin to build nests and successfully rear their young. As soon as a breeding population is established first year birds will also be released in order to enhance the expanding colony. In time this may result in the population becoming migratory, but evidence from Alsace and other parts of Europe suggests that Sussex and the wider landscape in southern England is well capable of supporting a wintering population of storks.
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 like the Arun and the Adur.
Similar stork-rearing pens have been erected by private landowners close to Knepp and in Surrey and East Sussex. In time, some individuals from these British colonies may breed with wandering birds from the continent birds and even begin migrating with them to wintering sites in Africa. 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%.
Much to our delight, we saw our first pair of wild White Storks flying over Hammer Pond towards the holding pen in early January 2017, and then a single stork in February 2017, just months after our captive storks had arrived. This is an encouraging sign that our cohort will, once they reach maturity, be joined by continental birds.
Several of our first year birds are now free-flying. We will be setting up a sightings page shortly, featuring a map to trace their movements and would welcome sightings from the public. One bird has already been recorded in Brittany, having flown across the Channel from the Isle of White.
Full feasibility study publication - coming soon....