White storks due to return to the UK countryside
The ‘ bringer of babies’ may soon be breeding in Sussex and benefitting the environment.
The sight of white storks flying around the Sussex countryside and perching on buildings in its villages and towns is set to become reality in 2019. A project to reintroduce white storks – one of the last recorded breeding attempts in Britain was on St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416, though they probably hung on for some years after that – is being finalised by a coalition of organisations that include the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Captive birds are already being held at Knepp Estate in West Sussex, and six birds are flying free around the 1,400ha farm that has become one of the UK’s pioneering rewilding initiatives.
The plan is to release up to 40 birds each year over a number of years, in a similar fashion to the European crane reintroduction in the Somerset Levels, and it’s hoped local people will choose to put stork nesting platforms on buildings in their local communities. “The whole point is to use these big, red-kite type birds, that will be nesting on the roofs of houses, schools and churches and that you simply can’t ignore, as PR,” says Derek Gow, the ecologist and conservationist who first proposed the idea. “This is all about community engagement and making people think about the type of landscape they want to live in.”
Durrell’s head of field programmes Dr Andrew Terry says the Jersey-based group was struck by the opportunity to be involved in a project that was not just about stemming the tide of wildlife loss, but about restoration.
“We want to look at whole ecosystems and how you can use a species to restore them and scale it up to see a really positive change,” he says. “With Brexit looming, there is now a national debate over how land will be managed in the future and hopefully we will see value placed on the restoration and maintenance of rich and diverse landscapes that will deliver all sorts of different benefits.”
Long-term goals include establishing a self-sustaining population by 2030 and more than 50 pairs in total. The storks will be expected to forage for a wide range of invertebrates, amphibians and small mammals in areas of pasture, wetland and open woodland.
About 20 migrant white storks are spotted in England each year but a reintroduction project is needed to re-establish them.