First wild stork chicks to hatch in UK in centuries poised to emerge

The first wild stork chicks to hatch in Britain for centuries are expected to emerge next month after three pairs of the huge white birds built nests in West Sussex.

Disdaining platforms constructed especially for them, the storks have created their stick nests in the heights of oak trees on the Knepp estate, the centre for a reintroduction project.

White storks are traditionally thought to bring fertility and good luck but have been extinct as breeding birds in Britain since 1416, or possibly during the English civil war.

More than 100 birds have been bred in captivity and released at three locations in West Sussex and Surrey, including Knepp, a 3,500-acre former dairy farm that was rewilded at the turn of the century.

Knepp is close to the West Sussex village of Storrington, known as Estorchestone or “homestead of the white storks” in the Domesday Book.

Storks are monogamous and last year a young pair laid three eggs in a treetop nest at Knepp but the eggs did not hatch. This year, cameras were rigged up beside this old nest but the couple constructed a new nest instead, in which they have laid five eggs.

With four other birds having paired up and made nests, conservationists have high hopes that the first wild-born storks – which eat insects, earthworms and small mammals – will hatch and fledge this summer.

Lucy Groves, the white stork project officer for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, one of the partners in the reintroduction scheme, said: “The female was just coming up to four years old last spring and was a little bit too young to breed but they obviously know what they are doing this year and were ahead of the game. It’s really exciting. It’s going to be a fantastic year.”

The Greeks created the myth that storks deliver newborn babies and nesting pairs herald good luck in numerous European cultures. Reintroduction programmes have successfully returned storks to France, the Netherlands and Poland where wild populations build their towering stick nests in villages and towns.

Isabella Tree, the co-owner of Knepp with Charlie Burrell, said: “It’s so funny. We thought we needed to ‘manage’ them and put up nest platforms and so we did and they’ve turned their beaks up at all of this – where they want to nest is in the tops of oaks. That’s where they would’ve nested when they were here centuries ago.

The stork chicks are expected to hatch in mid-May.

“I love the storks’ association with rebirth and bringing new life. They are such a hopeful symbol for rewilding.”

White storks migrate south in the winter and some conservationists initially feared that captive-bred birds released in Britain would be unable to cross the Channel.

But 22 of the 24 birds bred in captivity by the Cotswold Wildlife Park and released into West Sussex last summer have migrated south to the Mediterranean and north Africa. Storks are faithful to where they are raised and these birds are expected to return to England when they are ready to breed.

More than 100 birds are now living wild and in fenced pens at Knepp and nearby sites in a reintroduction scheme masterminded by Burrell and Tree, who have seen wildlife roar back onto their rewilded farm.

Knepp is now a hot spot for endangered species including nightingales, turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies. Beavers have been reintroduced in the fenced part of the farm, alongside free-roaming cattle and horses that mimic the grazing of extinct herbivores.

Some of the storks are fenced in open-top pens to protect them from predators and ensure they bond with their “home” range. The birds can fly out when they are ready and also draw in passing wild birds. The male in Knepp’s first pair is an un-ringed wild bird from continental Europe.

The chicks are expected to hatch in mid-May, and take 60 days to grow large enough to fly. The British-born wild storks are likely to fly south for three years or more before returning to England when they are ready to breed.

The project aims to have 30 wild pairs of storks by 2030 and can take heart from the successful return of another large white bird – the crane.

Britain’s crane population has reached its highest level for more than 400 years with 56 breeding pairs last summer. Natural recolonisation saw cranes return to east Norfolk in 1979 and reintroduction and conservation efforts led by the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust have now returned them to the Somerset Levels, Wales, Scotland and the Humberhead Peatlands.

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