Trip Report: Knepp (30 May 2022)

Knepp Walk and Talk from Lucy Groves

Photo: Clare Million

Many thanks must first go to Lucy Groves, White Stork Project Officer and now also UK Programmes Manager for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, for devoting her morning to us. Lucy organised four events for groups she gave zoom talks to recently and we were lucky enough to get one of the slots. 22 of us gathered in the Yoga car park at Knepp and were greeted with teas and coffees in the Granary where Lucy gave a short introductory presentation. A number of private landowners, at Knepp, Wadhurst, and Wintershall, are helping to establish a breeding population of free-living White Storks in Britain once again after 600 years absence. This project is being carried out in partnership with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, Cotswold Wildlife Park, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Warsaw Zoo. The partnership formed as a result of wanting to find a way to engage people with nature. An obvious animal to do this with is the White Stork. Knepp Castle Estate is the core project site. It is the primary release site for White Storks, where some birds are managed in captivity and is home to the first wild breeding White Storks in the UK. Do have a look on for full details.

Following the talk Lucy took us into areas not open to the public and introduced us to the storks but we didn’t have to go far for the first nest because it was in the middle of the farm on a very public oak tree. There are ten nests this year and already some had well grown chicks coming up to five weeks old. They were just about to be ringed and some given geolocators. The project blends birds which are unable to fly, having been injured in accidents like collisions with power lines, with juvenile birds reared at Cotswold Wildlife Park then hefted to Knepp. A 6-acre enclosure has enabled this to happen and we were able to get a glimpse of at least 6 birds in this, although bird flu restrictions meant that we couldn’t get too close.

Photo: Debbie Williams

Walking from nest-to-nest Lucy explained how the project worked and we asked many questions, some of them more than once, as we tried to get our heads around the complexities of the project! Continental White Storks are usually monogamous and nest site faithful but not at Knepp! It seems that the space here allows them to swap partners and nest sites. The mix of birds between those remaining all year and chicks now starting to migrate also means that birds return to nest at different dates and might find that their partner or nest is taken or in some cases, completely blown away in a storm. Birds nesting early this year suffered because of the early drought and were not able to find enough food for all their chicks. Another pair had only just laid eggs so might fair better now it’s a bit wetter, but have they left it too late? All the nests are monitored by Lucy with a drone and her team of 40+ volunteers. We met a couple of them recording everything that happened at a nest, hatching dates, adults’ visits, feeds etc. which provides vital information for their conservation.

Whilst walking these private paths in search of storks we also kept our eyes and ears open for other species. A pair of cuckoos calling and flying from tree to tree was a highlight as was a garden warbler. As we neared the farm again Lucy pointed out a post, behind willows, at the edge of a field where a photographer has permission to put out mealworms for a pair of little owls. With a bit of difficulty, we found the hidden post and thus the owl. Lucy’s walk finished just in time for lunch back at the car park. Refreshed, we decided to go up to Hammer Pond where turtle doves have been heard. No luck with them but we enjoyed flypasts from a kingfisher, reed warblers shinning up the reeds, a few swallows dipping down to the lake surface, a family of pied wagtails and nesting great crested grebes and moorhens. Plus, it was a very beautiful place to just sit and watch.

The group split here with some heading home and others continuing towards a field where turtle doves have sometimes been seen. At this point however it started to rain and we spent some time standing under a dripping tree. Once it held off, we reached the field but again no turtle doves, only rooks to add to our day list. Retracing our steps, we had more luck when a nightingale burst into song with a cuckoo in the background. But then a group of docile longhorn cattle, with very cute calves, ambled along the path and all interest in the nightingale evaporated as people cooed over the calves! Two white storks feeding close to the path here allowed us to see what they were eating which appeared to be slugs and possibly lizards or newt like creatures. It quite put me off my biscuit! We also saw more stork nests but could not always decide if they were new ones or different views of the ones we had seen in the morning. It will be good to return on 2nd July to see how the chicks have fared and how many have fledged. By now we were nearly back at the farm again and the sun came out as we watched the little owl still feeding on its post and flying backwards and forwards across the field. We were lucky that the kiosk was still open on our return and so rounded off our day with refreshments next to a bank of wildflowers, sitting in the sunshine on rain-soaked directors’ chairs!

Positive reviews – “It was a very enjoyable day; it’s such an amazing place & Lucy was great. Having toilets & tea/coffee on arrival was a lovely bonus!”
“A really lovely day yesterday. Nightingale, cuckoo and longhorn cattle all together just bowled me over! Loos too, perfect!” 

“Thank you thank for another terrific trip.  Lucy really was so generous with her time and had such enthusiasm for her subject.  I had no idea the re-introduction was quite so complicated, combining captive, semi-captive and wild.  I looked up a paper on the Swedish introduction programme which she said was their starting point. Quite a carry on in the early stages.”

By Rebecca Dunne