Bird watchers have been flocking (sorry) to Beddington Farmlands nature reserve this week after a white stork was spotted there.
White storks are associated in folklore with delivering new-born babies and bringing good luck, but the species has been extinct in the British Isles for 600 years.
This year in Sussex, a project to re-establish a breeding colony has had initial success, with chicks hatched in the wild in April.
The Knepp Estate’s impressive rewilding work also includes beavers and bison, but the European storks are the one species capable of spreading its wings, literally, and visiting other areas. Migrating storks are often seen in parts of southern England; now Knepp birds are beginning to spread out across the region.
It is 10 days since the first sighting of the bird at Beddington, with the Viridor incinerator not so far away. Looking a little lonely and bedraggled this particular stork – which has been given the somewhat prosaic name of GB35 – did cause some concern for its well-being at first, though recent reports suggest that its condition has been improving.
White storks were historically associated with Sussex. The Saxon name for the village of Storrington 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 are reminders of 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, Cotswold Wildlife Park and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Knepp Estate is helping to establish a breeding population of free-living white storks in Britain.
The White Stork Project says, “Storks’ 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, they have built a fox-proof, mink-proof pen covering about six and a half acres for storks imported from Warsaw Zoo. The flight feathers of juveniles are 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,” the project organisers say.
According to the White Stork Project, the Beddington bird “is one of the individuals from our project who originally came from Poland. He was brought to the UK in early 2018 after sustaining an injury in the wild and rehabilitated at Warsaw Zoo before coming to our satellite site in East Sussex.
“He was released into the wild earlier this year. He was first spotted in Dartford with two other storks in mid-July, since then he spent some time in Somerset and Dorset before returning to East Sussex briefly on September 1. After a few days in Surrey, he was then spotted in Hampshire where he spent about three weeks on the Somerley Estate in the New Forest. He was first spotted at Mitcham Common on October 18.
“The sightings coming in are vital for the project to learn about how these birds are behaving post-release and we are monitoring their movements closely.
“GB35 is still young (roughly two to three years old) and will not start to pair up or breed until 2021-2022.
“Hopefully, when he reaches that age he will either return to one of our sites or find a mate elsewhere.”
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