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!