August 19, 2019

Young storks take flight over West Sussex

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A group of 24 juvenile white storks have been released at the Knepp rewilding project in West Sussex as part of an initiative to restore populations of the species in Southern England.

The birds were hatched and raised at Cotswold Wildlife Park earlier this summer, before being transported to Knepp. They were initially kept in captivity while they became accustomed to their new surroundings before being released on Monday 12th August. The storks are currently settling in to their new home, but how long they will stay at the site no one knows!

The White Stork Project is a pioneering partnership of private landowners and nature conservation charities, which aims to restore a population of at least 50 breeding pairs in Southern England by 2030 through a phased release programme over the next five years. Initial releases of adult birds aimed at establishing local breeding populations, as seen for the first time at Knepp this year, have already been undertaken. These new released youngsters will supplement the population.

All of the storks that are part of the project have unique coloured rings on their legs, so anyone who spots a stork in the British countryside can report their sightings on the project website (www.whitestorkproject.org). This information will help scientists to understand the movements of the birds. Eight members of the group have specially designed GPS tags on them. These will transmit data on a regular basis so that conservationists can track their flight paths, in particular, to find out if they stay in the UK or whether they fly south for the winter.

The white stork is a migratory bird species and it is hoped that in the coming weeks these juveniles will attempt to migrate south for the winter. They are expected to cross over the English Channel and then join up with other migrating storks as they head south through France and Spain before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, and then the Sahara, to West Africa.

The team at Cotswold Wildlife Park are husbandry experts for this species and bred the young storks there from the captive population. Jamie Craig, Curator of Cotswold Wildlife Park commented: “It does not seem long ago that we witnessed the first of these birds hatching out at the Park and after months of hard work it was a fantastic moment to watch these birds leave the confines of the netted release pen and take flight - seeing these birds riding the thermals over Knepp is a sight we will not forget and we eagerly await what the future may hold for them”

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is a key partner in the project, providing post-release monitoring expertise as well as work with the communities surrounding the release sites. Lucy Groves, Project Officer for Durrell commented: “Having looked after these birds since they arrived at Knepp, it was a joy to see them leaving the release pen and taking to the skies with our free-flying adults. I have been blown away by the response from our local community, many of whom have provided us with sighting reports which are crucial for helping us to understand the behaviour of these young storks. It will be interesting to see whether they decide to stay with our resident adults at Knepp or if they spread their wings and decide to fly south. This is an exciting milestone for the project and I will be following their progress closely.”

Alongside the Knepp Estate, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Cotswold Wildlife Park, other key partners include the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation for their reintroduction expertise. Other release sites include Wadhurst Park in Sussex and Wintershall Estate in Surrey.

Image credit - Nick Upton: 1. One of the juvenile storks takes flight for the first time as it leaves the pen; 2. a young stork on its first flight after being released; 3. The team at Cotswold Wildlife Park checking on the stork chicks shortly after they hatched at the park earlier this summer.

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