White storks in Sussex pioneer first UK breeding colony in hundreds of years

Baby storks bred in the Sussex countryside - the first in the UK for hundreds of years - are now set to pioneer a self sustaining breeding colony.

A pair of the wild birds nested in an oak tree on the Knepp Estate at West Grinstead and produced five eggs - the first time that the birds have bred in Britain since 1416.

The estate is owned by pioneering landowner Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree who are spearheading a ‘rewilding’ project on the estate which is transforming 3,500 acres of unprofitable farmland into a haven for wildlife — including storks. There are currently three active nests at Knepp.

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It is unclear why the birds failed to survive in Britain in sthe past, but experts say it is likely because of habitat loss, over-hunting and targeted persecution - especially during the English Civil War when the birds were associated with rebellion.

Storks at Knepp Castle, West Grinstead. Photo: Malcolm Green, Countryman Photography SUS-200406-125726001

The Knepp Estate is now a key part of The White Stork Project, a partnership of private landowners and nature conservation charities which aim to restore a population of at least 50 breeding pairs in the south by 2030 through a phased release programme over the next few years.

This spring’s breeding pair of storks at Knepp is the same pair that attempted unsuccessfully to breed on the estate last year.

It is hoped that the pair’s chicks - born during lockdown and featured on BBC TV’s Springwatch programme this week - will be the first of a self sustaining breeding colony.

International environmental charity, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, is a key partner in the project. Project officer Lucy Groves said: “After waiting 33 days for these eggs to hatch it was extremely exciting to see signs that the first egg had hatched on May 6.

Storks at Knepp Castle, West Grinstead. Photo: Malcolm Green, Countryman Photography SUS-200406-125737001

“The parents have been working hard and are doing a fantastic job, especially after their failed attempt last year.

“It is incredible to have the first white stork chicks hatch in the wild for hundreds of years here at Knepp.”

Isabella Tree said: “There’s something so magical and charismatic about white storks, when you see them wheeling around in the sky, and I love their association with rebirth and regeneration.

“They’re the perfect emblem for rewilding. A symbol of hope.

Storks at Knepp Castle Estate, West Grinstead. Photo: Malcolm Green, Countryman Photography SUS-200406-125748001

“It’s going to be amazing to have them back in the British countryside, bill-clattering on their nests in spring – perhaps even setting up nests on our rooftops like they do in Europe.”

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