The White Stork Project is led by a pioneering partnership of private landowners and nature conservation organisations, who are working together to restore a population of at least 50 breeding pairs in southern England by 2030 through a phased release programme over the next five years with White Storks to be released at several sites in Sussex and surrounding counties.
There is evidence to suggest that they bred in Britain before becoming extinct in the 17th century possibly due to a combination of habitat loss, over-hunting and targeted persecution. There are lots of references to storks in place names in the Doomsday Book although I’ve read that some people doubt the proof that White Stork was ever truly a British bird. However, there is a clear case based on archaeology, coupled with records from feasts, place names and observations dating back to the early 1600’s that the bird had a British presence. Literature and illustration also demonstrate familiarity with the species. This may or may not have been drawn from local experience but there is a clear and unarguable case for their regular British presence since records began.
There is sufficient suitable habitat here and they do breed close by on the continent and I’d love to see them in the UK regularly. There are several records of White Stork in the UK each year but not sufficient to establish a breeding population without a helping hand.
Rescued White Storks from Poland, who could not be re-introduced to the wild, were taken to the Cotswold Wildlife Park to form part of the captive stock in a British breeding programme. Once quarantined a proportion of these adult storks were taken to three partner estates in Surrey and Sussex including the pioneering re-wilding estate at Knepp. At Knepp they were kept in an open enclosure with their wings clipped so that they would remain for two winters and after two years their flight feathers were allowed to regrow. Two years is long enough for them to develop strong homing instincts. In mid-August 2019, for the first time, English bred White Storks were released into the wild at the Knepp Estate.
The main flock of immature birds were next reported on the 23rd August when 27 were seen drifting west near Bognor Regis at around midday. At around 1:30pm they drifted west over Hayling Bridge and at 2:45pm they were reported drifting up the estuary at Netley. I suggested to Sarah that we went for a dog walk, grabbed my binoculars and kept my eyes pinned to the skies in the south east. We hadn’t gone more than 10 minutes before I was amazed to see a flock of 26 White Storks drifting fairly low towards us and almost over our heads!
Over the subsequent weeks large groups of storks were reported across the south west. I hoped that one might settle somewhere locally so that I could sketch it and this finally happened on the 6th September when a White Stork was found in Ridge near Wareham.
I was talking at Wareham Camera Club on the 10th September and so I headed down a few hours earlier to see the stork. After a frustrating hour of very brief glimpses behind a hedge a buzzard spooked the stork and it flew back to the scrape where there is a viewing screen, I headed over there and had excellent views. The Birds of Poole Harbour Group have created a freshwater scrape here and the site has already hosted good numbers of migrant waders in its first autumn.
Of the released Knepp birds eight have GPS trackers fitted including this bird who is known as GB8E – her ring number. Knepp will be naming the storks next spring when they see who returns and they will be asking local schools for help with the naming. After I saw GB8E over Totton she split from the main group and headed north into Somerset. She spent some time exploring there before returning south east back to Totton on the Lower Test Marshes. Having spent a few days there she moved to Dorset and has settled in Ridge around Sunnyside Farm. She is clearly doing well feeding on invertebrates and small fish and receiving lots of admiring visitors. By 24th September she had been tracked down to the south west tip of Cornwall and in the end spent the winter feeding in the farmland around St Levan and Porthgwarra. The farmer named her Grace.
The White Stork Project hopes that in the coming weeks these released immature storks will attempt to migrate south for the winter, crossing over the English Channel and then joining up with other migrating storks as they head south through France and Spain before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and the Sahara to West Africa. It is hoped that they then return to the UK to form a breeding population.
The status of White Stork in the UK has obviously changed forever now but hopefully, in time, just like White-tailed Sea-eagles and Red Kites, they will be considered fully fledged British breeding birds.