Safe and warm in a shaggy stick nest, perched 50ft up an old oak tree on the Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex are five grey-mottled stork eggs.
Above them, their expectant parents hover, preen and clank their giant pink beaks together.
Every 40 minutes or so, they gently roll the eggs with those big beaks — it will ensure their chicks’ health — and take turns to sit on them or swoop off to feast on frogs, worms and voles.
They are utterly focused and totally oblivious to the fact that, over the next few days and weeks into early May — all eyes, drones (filming from an unobtrusive 230ft above) and hopes will be pinned on their progress. Because if even just one of these eggs successfully hatches, this proud pair will be the first storks to breed in the wild in Britain for over 600 years.
It would herald the beginning of a reintroduction of wild storks into our habitats and see members of the White Stork Project — a partnership of private landowners and nature conservation charities — go wild in celebration.
Majestic: A pair of storks on Knepp Castle Estate. If even one of these eggs successfully hatches, this proud pair will be the first storks to breed in the wild in Britain for over 600 years
‘It will mean everything. Absolutely everything,’ says Lucy Groves, the White Stork Project officer for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, one of the partners in the scheme. ‘It will be a huge success and hopefully the beginning of the first breeding stork population in Britain for centuries.’
Storks are large, long-legged, long-necked, black-and-white wading birds with long, stout bills, and a wingspan of up to 10ft.
They are beautiful, majestic, monogamous — pairs tend to part for winter migration and reunite each spring back at their old nest — and, in flight, utterly graceful.
Traditionally, they signify good luck, fertility and childbirth — the ancient Greeks are credited with the idea that they deliver newborn babies via the story of Gerana and Hera. After boasting of her beauty, Gerana is turned into a stork (some versions maintain it was a crane) by the vengeful goddess Hera who takes her son.
The image of Gerana retrieving her baby son in her beak has rather stuck down the centuries.
But sadly, for all that, and while they breed happily in continental Europe, they have been extinct as breeding birds here for too long — the last record of storks nesting was in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416 — and today rarely even visit the UK, with only about 20 wild storks spotted each year.
Storks are large, long-legged, long-necked, black-and-white wading birds with long, stout bills, and a wingspan of up to 10ft
The White Stork Project, founded in 2016, and operating at three locations in West Sussex and Surrey, including Knepp, a former dairy farm that was rewilded at the turn of the century, is hoping to change all that.
Drawing on reintroduction programmes that have successfully returned storks to France, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland, the project aims to restore a population of at least 250 storks in southern England by 2030.
Their flock of storks is made up of injured birds rescued from Poland (including our female, busy nesting above) which cannot fly long distances any more, along with young birds bred in captivity for the project.
This, it is hoped, will create a vital magnet — a home base for storks bred in the wild in Britain to return to after they have migrated. Success will mark the end of years of disappointment for conservationists. Back in 2014, there was great excitement when a pair of four-year-old birds built a nest on a 35ft-high, 18th-century chimney at Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Sadly, those efforts came to nothing.
Last year, ornithological hopes for the reintroduction of wild storks were again raised — and later dashed — when this year’s couple (the female is from the project, whereas the male is unringed and possibly wild) settled in a similar shaggy nest in a nearby tree.
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Drone footage, taken before the pair started incubating, showed three large eggs. Again, conservationists were all on tenterhooks. Again, the eggs did not hatch.
‘The female was only three and a half years old — just under breeding age,’ explains Lucy Groves. ‘So while she did everything right, sat on them and did a fantastic job, it’s likely the eggs were infertile.’
There was further disappointment. On the basis that storks tend to return to the same nest, the team rigged up cameras in the hope of catching them live this year. But on their spring return, the canny storks took one look at it and built a new and more secluded nest nearby.
Cameras or not, however, this year the wild stork breeding stars might finally be aligned.
‘We’ve got really, really high hopes this time,’ says Lucy Groves. ‘The female is older, sexually mature and they’re doing an amazing job, never leaving the nest untended, swapping over regularly. And with five eggs we’ve got a better chance.’
Which is a good thing. Because even if the stork chicks hatch, the odds are stacked against them. Survival rates for their first migration — to Morocco and beyond to southern Africa — which they undertake at barely six months old, are less than 30 per cent.
No one really knows how and why wild storks disappeared from the British countryside. For centuries they were everywhere — nesting up high, clattering their bills, tenderly caring for their fluffy young for 60 days until they were old enough to fly.
And we definitely loved them. Just a few miles from Knepp, the village of Storrington was known as Estorchestone or ‘homestead of the white storks’ in the Domesday Book, and still uses a stork symbol on its signs.
Roasted stork was a popular delicacy in medieval banquets and, in the 16th century, there are records of each bird fetching up to 48 old pence at London markets.
Perhaps they were eaten to extinction —– which is certainly the case with the crane, another long-legged bird. In 1465, the Archbishop of York served 204 cranes at a single banquet. Sadly, the storks’ association with rebirth meant they became a symbol of insurgency.
Traditionally, storks signify good luck, fertility and childbirth — the ancient Greeks are credited with the idea that they deliver newborn babies via the story of Gerana and Hera
Shortly after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, with storks already rare, Parliament actually debated putting greater effort into exterminating them from the east of England for fear they might foment republicanism.
Meanwhile, across Europe, numbers have been falling since the 19th century thanks to industrialisation, changes in agricultural methods and, latterly, climate change, the draining of wetlands and disappearance of insect-rich pastures and meadows.
But in many cultures they are still much loved and, despite all the noise and mess, many believe storks nesting on their homes bring good luck.
So the Spanish erect poles for nests along their motorways, while in Alsace householders install cartwheels for storks to nest on their roofs.
During a cold snap in Bulgaria in March 2018, villagers sheltered white storks in their homes. And any successful reintroduction of the bird is usually marked by the restoration of historical stork festivals. Meanwhile, back on Knepp’s glorious 3,500 acres, the conservationists have done everything possible to make life easy for the storks — even constructing special nesting platforms high up in the trees, which the birds firmly rejected.
As Isabella Tree, co-owner of Knepp with Charlie Burrell, put it: ‘We thought we needed to “manage” them and put up nest platforms and so we did and they’ve turned their beaks up at all of this.
The last record of storks nesting was in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416 — and today rarely even visit the UK, with only about 20 wild storks spotted each year
‘Where they want to nest is in the tops of oaks. That’s where they would have nested when they were here centuries ago.’
Happily, while the team’s star ‘five-egg’ pair started building their metre-wide nest in mid-March, they are not alone.
A second couple, nesting in a nearby oak, are also sitting on four eggs. Meanwhile, a third pair, who have done a lot of bill clattering and energetic mating, and have built a nest in readiness, are yet to lay anything.
Eggs are laid every other day, incubated immediately and should hatch in 33 to 34 days.
Lucy Groves says it’s all looking very hopeful. ‘They are happy enough in their environment to be behaving normally,’ she explains.
Which is key, because, if the storks do start breeding normally — producing between three to five chicks each year for the next 25-odd years until they die — in the long term, there really is a future.
A rebirth, if you like, of this magnificent symbol of fertility and good luck which likes to swoop on the thermals high above us.
All it requires is for the youngsters to work out how to make it to Africa and back safely each winter.