Birds brooding three eggs due to hatch in June are part of a rewilding project
White storks nesting on top of an ancient oak tree could become the first wild pair to successfully breed in Britain for hundreds of years.
The enormous birds are brooding three eggs on the rewilded Knepp estate, in Sussex, as part of a project to reintroduce the species to south-east England.
“It’s absolutely thrilling,” said Isabella Tree, the author and estate’s owner with her husband Charlie Burrell. “She is sitting on three eggs and we feel like parents – after torrential rain we rush out to see if their nest is still there.”
The storks have been brought back in a collaboration between three landowners in south-east England, the Cotswold Wildlife Park and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, an expert in restoring endangered bird species.
Birds with clipped wings from sanctuaries in Europe were introduced into large, fox-proof, open-topped pens three years ago. Conservationists hoped these would attract passing wild storks, which has happened.
Additional birds bred in captivity will be released over the next five years, with the aim of a self-sustaining wild population by 2030.
Ros Kennerley, the UK programmes manager for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: “They are not globally endangered but they are a really charismatic large bird that symbolises rebirth and which people can see. They can be a means to inspire people about the natural world.”
Within weeks of being released into the pens at Knepp, one bird had defied its clipped wings to take flight and escape, and was subsequently spotted in Norfolk, Hampshire and Dorset.
One of the fears with the project was that British-reared birds would not be capable of flying to continental Europe and mixing with wild populations there, nor undertake the migration to spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa.
Omnivorous storks stalk through grassland eating small mammals, snails, crickets, earthworms and large insects. Conservationists believe there may be enough winter food in southern England for the wild birds but other reintroduced birds in Europe have begun to migrate. At Knepp, the individual that flew free went on to travel across the Channel to Brittany, and has since returned to the estate.