High in an oak tree in the county of West Sussex, in southeastern England, a pair of free-flying white storks hatched three chicks. It was May 6, 2020, a landmark moment: It had been 604 years since the previous written record of white storks breeding anywhere in Britain. Two weeks after those first chicks emerged at Knepp Estate, another pair of storks, in another shaggy nest of sticks in a nearby oak, hatched three more.
“This achievement is beyond thrilling. We dreamed of this moment, and now the storks have done it—we have British-born chicks again!” says Tim Mackrill, a reintroduction expert with the White Stork Project. Launched in 2016, the project aims to establish 50 breeding pairs of white storks in southern Britain by 2030.
More than three feet tall, with snow-white bodies, black wings spanning seven feet, and long, red legs, white storks often nest on roofs in towns and villages across Europe, where they’re much loved. As spring migrants from wintering grounds in Kenya and Uganda and as far south as South Africa, they’re associated with good luck and rebirth—hence the fairy tale of white storks delivering new-born babies in slings from their beaks. The joyful bill-clattering of a courting pair atop their nest—a resonant knocking made by the rapid opening and closing of their beak, with head thrown back to amplify the sound through their throat pouch—associates white storks with marital tenderness.
No one knows for certain why storks disappeared from Britain, though their appearance on the menus of medieval banquets suggests that they may simply have been targeted for food. Despite their 600-year absence, however, white storks have remained an important symbol, featuring in folklore, children’s stories and illuminated manuscripts, on pub and hotel signs, and in family names and nicknames down the centuries. The White Stork Project hopes that excitement about the return of these charismatic birds will spark greater public interest in nature recovery in the U.K. and, perhaps, pave the way for more species reintroductions.
In recent months, the newcomers at Knepp indeed have been a cause for celebration—a distraction from the gloomy statistics of COVID-19 and a focus of public empathy, their actions even seeming to mirror those of humans under lockdown. At the end of March as people hunkered at home, the white storks began incubating their eggs. In mid-May with travel restrictions to nature areas in the U.K.lifted, the two sets of eggs hatched, allowing hundreds of visitors to see the chicks for themselves.
In the past few days, the first set of chicks have fledged the nest, flying down to the ground to feed on grasshoppers under the watchful eye of their parents and roosting in nearby trees at night. During the coming weeks, just as airline flights begin opening up and people take to the skies once more, the adventurous young storks will fly farther afield, perhaps even following their parents and popping over to Europe for a spell.
Although recent decades have been hard on white storks in Europe, they aren’t endangered. Draining of wetlands, habitat for amphibians and small fish the birds eat, and pesticide-driven absences of insects that supplement their diet, combined with fatalities from collisions with power lines, have led to declines in many parts of Europe. These losses in part have been offset by reintroductions in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, and Sweden.
Emblems of a wider movement
In the U.K.—one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, ranked 189th out of 218 countries, according to a Biodiversity Intactness Index run by the Predicts project—more than two-fifths of mammals, insects, birds, and other wildlife have seen significant declines since the 1970s. White storks are emblematic of a wider movement to repair nature in the country, of which Knepp Estate—run by my husband, Charlie Burrell, and me—is a pioneer.
To kickstart natural processes, in 2000 we began rewilding our 3,500 acres of depleted, loss-making farmland. This hinged on restoring the river, ponds, and wetlands, allowing thorny scrub and trees to regenerate, and introducing free-roaming herbivores such as old English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth pigs as proxies of extinct aurochs, tarpans, and wild boars. Then we stood back and allowed nature to take over.
By browsing, rootling, trampling, wallowing, and dispersing seeds in their dung, these animals have created complex, novel ecosystems, swiftly and with astonishing results. Knepp is now a breeding hot spot for endangered nightingales, turtle doves, and purple emperor butterflies. It’s home to all five species of owls In the U.K. and 13 of the 18 bat species. More than 1,600 insect species have been recorded, many of them nationally rare. All these creatures have found haven at Knepp on their own, attracted by emerging habitats and food resources.
The white storks, however, have needed help to re-establish themselves. Every year, 20 or so of the birds venture to England from Europe, but finding no other storks nesting here, they fly on. Like herons and egrets, white storks nest in colonies for safety in numbers, social learning, and ease of finding a replacement should a mate die. Without this group reassurance, they’re unlikely to attempt to breed.
European reintroduction projects have pioneered a way of mimicking a colony by raising white storks in large pens in open countryside, using non-flying rescue birds and captive-bred birds with clipped wings, to attract wild storks. Eventually, wild birds breed with the captive storks, and their offspring migrate, returning loyally to their natal site. (Read about the resurgance of white storks in France.)
In 2016, the government-approved White Stork Project chose Knepp as its starter site. The project is a partnership among three private landowners and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, an international charity founded by writer Gerald Durrell to save species from extinction; the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, experts in bird reintroductions across Europe; and Cotswold Wildlife Park, a privately owned zoo in Oxfordshire. Knepp’s biodiverse wetlands and grasslands and open-grown trees for nesting are perfect habitat for storks. (Coincidentally, the name of the village of Storrington, just nine miles from Knepp, is derived from Estorchestone, meaning Abode of the Storks in Saxon English. The village sign features two white storks.) Two other locations—Wadhurst Park Estate, in East Sussex, and Wintershall Estate, in Surrey—were identified for establishing supplementary release pens the following year.
Knepp welcomed the first cohort of 20 juvenile storks donated from Warsaw Zoo, in Poland, into its six-acre pen in December 2016. With them were four non-flying Polish wild adults—birds injured in road accidents or by power-lines—to help instill natural social behavior in the juveniles. This replicates successful reintroductions in Sweden and Alsace, in France, where a breeding program begun in 1976 has seen white stork numbers grow from fewer than 10 mating pairs to more than 600 today.
One of the nesting females at Knepp, a particularly bold five-year-old from the first set of Polish imports, flew to France in 2018, where she spent a year with wild birds before returning to Knepp to pair up with one of the storks in her pen. (We know this because of reported sightings identifying the conspicuous ring-tag on her leg.) Another GPS-tagged juvenile raised at Knepp migrated to Rabat, Morocco, last year and is now in Spain. The male of the other nesting pair is a wild bird, one of several already attracted by the presence of the new colony.
Native or not?
Not everyone in the U.K. embraces the White Stork Project. Opponents argue that historical evidence for white storks in Britain is slim and that they shouldn’t be considered a native species. Alfred Newton in A Dictionary of Birds, published in 1896, thought the white stork “had never been a native or even inhabitant of this country.”
Moreover, critics say, for this “new” species to attain “native” status, the birds should form colonies on their own, without human involvement. They point to the spontaneous recent arrivals in southeastern England of little egrets and great white egrets. “I would rather…allow natural colonization of our birdlife,” says Lizzie Bruce, director of British Birds magazine. To her, the white stork effort “feels more like a vanity project, especially as the species is of least concern” for conservation triage.
Birders echo that sentiment on social media, saying it would be better to focus not on a flamboyant species that isn’t endangered but on birds, such as the tree sparrow, that are struggling to survive but have less obvious appeal. Some conservationists who worry about the effects white storks might have on habitats or prey species such as insects and amphibians have called for environmental impact studies. This seems an impossible challenge, given the potential extent of the birds’ feeding range in southeastern England, the relatively small number of storks involved, and the variety of their food sources, including earthworms.
None of these criticisms trouble Ian Newton, a former visiting professor of ornithology at the University of Oxford and former senior ornithologist at the Natural Environment Research Council, the U.K.’s leading public funder of environmental science. (Newton is not affiliated with the White Stork Project.) The white stork, he says, is represented in bone remains at the Bronze Age site of Jarlshof, in Shetland; the Iron Age site of Dragonby, in Lincolnshire; the Roman site of Silchester, in Hampshire; and the Saxon site at Westminster Abbey, in London—all from long before the previous written record, in 1416, of white storks nesting in Britain.
“If we restrict ourselves to reintroducing species well-recorded in the historical record, we would exclude from consideration all those species which disappeared earlier but for which Britain still offers suitable habitat,” such as Dalmatian pelicans, night herons, and eagle owls, Newton says. Reintroductions, to his mind, offer not only the joy of seeing lost species return but also great potential for conservation.
“Generally speaking, the more widespread a species within its natural range, the more abundant and secure it is in the longer term,” Newton says, adding that reintroductions of charismatic species attract “an enormous amount of interest and support from the general public. This can benefit local economies and attract money into conservation that would otherwise be spent on other activities.” Further, the storks themselves may bolster other species. In Europe, their gigantic, shaggy nests provide nesting habitats for numerous birds such as starlings and house and tree sparrows.
Knepp’s white storks have already become something of a media phenomenon, with extensive coverage domestically but also by French and Polish TV. More than 2,500 visitors have seen the chicks since COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed, and 20 miles away, a gigantic mural on the city of Brighton’s busy North Road depicts white storks flying in to feed their chicks. The mural, expressing a heightened appreciation for both clean air and nature under lockdown, exhorts us to Let Nature Breathe—a suggestion, perhaps, that the U.K.’s magnificent white storks indeed are heralding new beginnings.
Editor's note: This story was corrected on July 17, 2020, to say white storks had been gone from Britain for 604 years and that the juvenile that migrated to Morocco in 2019 is now in Spain.
Isabella Tree is a freelance journalist and author. In 2018, her book Wilding—Returning Nature to Our Farm won the Richard Jefferies Award for Nature Writing and was voted one of the 10 best science books by Smithsonian magazine.