February 2024 Talk – White Storks Taking Flight ! Reconnecting with a Wilder Britain (Matt Phelps)

Matt Phelps gave us an interesting presentation, delving into the successes and future plans of the White Stork Project on Knepp Estate in West Sussex.

One of the group’s favourite safari destinations, Knepp Estate is internationally recognised for its ambitious project of reintroducing White Storks back to England after the species was persecuted several hundred years ago. Private landowners and other conservation organisations are collaborating with the aim of establishing a self-sustaining wild breeding population by 2030, restoring ecological and cultural values.

Several national and international project partners, including the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, Cotswold Wildlife Park, Wadhurst Park and Warsaw Zoo, have been integral to the success of the reintroduction programme. In the first phase, Warsaw Zoo contributed the first White Storks for Knepp between 2016-2018, however, these birds were rehabilitated individuals which had sustained an injury and unable to fly. The decision to transport the White Storks to Knepp was based on increasing the bird’s welfare standards by living their days in an enclosed, but suitable wild habitat area. The species is highly sociable and congregate in large numbers; existing Storks attract other migrating groups who are more likely to settle and breed. In 2020, wild Storks bred for the first time.

Phase two began in 2017 when captive-bred flying birds were brought from the Cotswold Wildlife Park, but remained in a temporary aviary to build the strong association for the Storks where the Knepp Estate is ‘home’. Finally, in 2019 and to the present day, first year Storks have been and are still being released for migration, embarking on a new journey! It is hoped that their natal philopatric instincts will mean the White Storks will return to Knepp Estate or to England to breed. All the released White Storks have attached special blue rings, provided by the British Trust for Ornithology, to identify each individual to the project. Additionally, at least 7-12 birds are GPS tagged too, tracking their movements and distribution in much more detailed accuracy.

Looking after the Storks is no easy business and Matt was very enthusiastic about the project’s dedicated 45 volunteers. With such a big team, each volunteer has a rota for different roles depending on the season. Volunteers frequently nest monitor on the ground and set up camera traps; maintain the enclosures; feed and clean the birds on site, and many more activities!

Since the launch of the reintroduction programme, local communities and schools have thoroughly welcomed the project’s encouragement to connect with nature and the White Storks. So far, 1500 people have attended in-person talks and over 50,000 through research conferences around the world. Plenty of sightings have been reported from France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, and even Morocco!

The group was captivated by Matt’s wonderful talk about the White Storks, encouraging many of them to return to Knepp Estate to see these fascinating birds.

Based on an article by Jolene Orlowski

For more information about the project see The White Stork Project.

White Stork pair bonding courtesy of Dianne Watkins
white stork tidying nest courtesy of Dianne Watkins
White Stork with chicks courtesy of Dianne Watkins
white stork courtesy of Dianne Watkins