White storks: Sussex breeding programme has brought once-extinct birds back to UK - with 40 chicks to fledge

More than 40 white stork chicks are expected to fledge in Sussex any day now, and may one day call other parts of the UK home (Photo: Malcome Green / The White Stork)More than 40 white stork chicks are expected to fledge in Sussex any day now, and may one day call other parts of the UK home (Photo: Malcome Green / The White Stork)
More than 40 white stork chicks are expected to fledge in Sussex any day now, and may one day call other parts of the UK home (Photo: Malcome Green / The White Stork) | Malcome Green / The White Stork
Famously depicted as dropping off human babies in their new homes, this time humans have helped delivered a bushel of baby storks.

Although their international population is doing well, white storks have been missing from British skies for more than 600 years - with the last breeding pair recorded in 1416. The large migratory birds are thought to have been wiped out by a combination of hunting and the destruction of their wetland habitats, something that has prevented them from returning on their own.

Until now, that is. A Sussex breeding and rewilding programme have effectively brought the species back from their localised extinction. The programme, launched by The White Stork Project in 2016, hatched just four chicks in 2020. But it has gone from strength to strength, and this year a whopping 41 chicks are expected to leave their nests - at Knepp Castle in West Sussex and Wadhurst Park in East Sussex - soon.

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White Stork Project officer Laura Vaughn-Hirsch said that they had attracted their now-thriving population by using other storks to draw them in. But they needed birds which wouldn’t migrate, and then not return.

“Storks are a very social species so they will go where others are,” she told SWNS. “We needed birds which weren't going to migrate so we used 30 injured storks from Warsaw Zoo who can no longer fly. These are birds which have had their whole wing or half of their wing amputated - usually due to traffic collisions or flying into electricity pylons... They got to be part of this rewilding programme even if they could never survive in the wild themselves.”

Although 41 chicks fledging sounds like a success story, Ms Vaughn-Hirsch said the colony still had a long way to go. "People are saying to me, oh, 41 is a lot - but actually, there is sadly a high mortality rate associated with migration. So we still have a while before we can get the colony fully established.”

Eight birds from their past clutches had been recorded successfully migrating to Morocco, so there was hope for Britain’s stork population on the horizon. However, the storks also needed healthy environments to come back to - something that would benefit many other species as well.

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“We want storks to be a catalyst for landscape recovery,” she added. “To bring wildlife populations back, we need to have wetlands which aren't polluted, habitats which aren't wiped out, and reduced use of pesticides and chemicals in farming and our gardens. This will help all birds and all wildlife species.”

Last year’s State of Nature report found as many as one in six species were at imminent risk of going extinct in Great Britain, with biodiversity currently in a state of devastating decline. But there have been a number of other successful conservation and reintroduction efforts to bring back species once lost to one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, such as the reintroduction of bison in Kent or the many beaver families being deployed across the UK - something which is having a positive ripple effect on other wildlife.

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