Wadhurst Park - Landscape revival for wildlife and people in the High Weald

Angela Brennan – Head of Conservation

“Quick, quick, the storks are circling!” Someone is calling me out from the office. I dash outside, and there they are, around 20 large, black and white birds circling up and up on the thermals until they’re specks against the clouds. Blink and you lose sight of them. What can they see from up there? Can they make out the coast and the sea? Are they checking out good feeding sites, or are they just having fun? – It looks like fun to me. Who wouldn’t want to fly like that?

Although I’ve seen them many times, I find the birds beautiful, mesmerising and exciting. I could stand for hours watching them feeding in the grass, gliding effortlessly over the land or, as here, soaring high as the eye can see. They are large, elegant birds, but quite shy. The ones that can fly are braver than the ones that can’t – probably not surprising really. And it only takes something out of the ordinary (people, foxes, dogs) to spook them completely. They fly or wander off into the long grass or behind shrubs and trees, as far away from the unusual as possible, not to be seen again until they’re sure any threat has gone.

Wadhurst Park is a partner in the White Stork Project that aims to restore a self-sustaining breeding population of storks in southern England. Storks stopped breeding in the UK around the fifteenth century, and although a few birds fly over every year, they have never taken up residence again. The exact reasons for the initial loss are unknown but hunting and habitat loss have been suggested. We lost a part of our culture and natural heritage when these birds disappeared. Elsewhere, they are associated with good luck and rebirth. Everyone knows the fairy-tale idea that storks bring babies, but how many people have seen a stork in real life?

These are migratory birds– spending autumn and winter in the warmer climate of Africa and returning to Europe to breed in early spring. This must have been part of their magic in times before migration was understood. Where would such a large bird go to in winter? Swallows were thought to spend their winters asleep on riverbeds, or on the moon. But a stork? Their return must have been a time for celebration, a signal that the dark, cold, hungry days of winter would end soon – they heralded spring and new growth.

They are gregarious by nature and like to join up with fellow storks. Britain lies at the extreme northern and westerly edges of their breeding territory. Although wild storks have been recorded flying over the UK, without an established population here, these birds haven’t been attracted to stay. By bringing over rescue birds from Warsaw Zoo, Poland, it was hoped that a static population of breeding birds would restart the UK population, perhaps attracting wild storks to join their throng.

This year, just four years after the first adult birds were introduced to the Knepp Estate, two pairs of storks raised chicks in the wild. They fledged successfully, and in August, they were joined at Knepp by other captive-bred youngsters raised at Cotswold Wildlife Park. Shortly afterwards, many of these juvenile birds began the long migration to Africa. You can read more about the project and the latest news on the young storks’ movements here:  https://www.whitestorkproject.org/

Our birds haven’t bred yet, but we’re hopeful for the future. If we’re lucky, the young will fledge and migrate to Africa, returning one spring when they’re 3-4 years old and ready to breed. Our ancestors would have delighted in the storks’ annual return. Would they have vied with their neighbours to be the first to see one that year? Perhaps there were celebrations to greet the birds in Spring? Their storks would have fed in the rich farmland and wet meadows of the High Weald, and nested in tall trees. And on warm days, they would have soared high up on thermals, flying over the patchwork landscape, as our birds are doing now. Welcome back Storks!

Nessie Ramm, November 2019

Crab apple, bullace, dog rose, hawthorn

Autumn is so much more than just leaf fall. Looking out across the Weald on my daily journey to work I see nature busy gathering in, letting go, softening, and refilling. Getting ready for winter. The colours are subtle but magnificent. There are valley mists and so much rain this year which has led to the most wonderful show of fungi I can remember. 

Nevertheless it’s leaf-fall itself which has been at the forefront of my mind. Having saved the woodland parts of the mural until I finished painting the summer flowers, I’m now up against the ultimate deadline. I’ve been working long hours these last few weeks in order to paint tree branches from life before their leaves end up on the woodland floor. Painting each plant from a fresh sample is so much easier for me than using photos- all the information I could possibly need is right there in front of me in three dimensions. Without a sample I need to cross check different photos and illustrations to build up a full understanding. And if I don’t understand how something fits together I can’t really paint it.

The mural has an overall structure of different habitats. From a low area of meadow in the middle, either end eventually reaches up to the full height of the wall with trees and shrubs. On the right this is in the form of coppice woodland with hazel, oak, hornbeam and honeysuckle- among others. While painting this section I have learned the difference between pedunculate oak (acorns with stalks, leaves without) and sessile oak (leaves with stalks, acorns without) which has added to my understanding- one of the aims of the mural. The ash has been painted with the telltale signs of ash dieback, which is much in evidence in the High Weald. How this story plays out remains to be seen- the structure of our landscape will change dramatically but I am hopeful resistant individuals will become apparent and ensure a future for this magnificent tree.

On the left there is a representation of hedgerow and scrub, containing a glorious tangle of hawthorn, sloe, crab apple and wild roses- what I like to call ‘nightingale heaven’.

As the nights draw in and the leaves finally let go I will be starting the final phase of the mural – populating it with the invertebrates, birds and (small) mammals that call it home.

Field maple, ash, oak, hazel, hornbeam
Hazel and honeysuckle