Guest blog – The Acceptability of Wildness by Ian Parsons

The Acceptability of Wildness?

Whilst running my spring tours in Extremadura this April and May, I read Richard Mabey’s book, ‘A Brush With Nature’, a collection of some of his columns from BBC Wildlife Magazine. I am sure that many of you have read it (it came out in 2010), but if you haven’t, I wholeheartedly recommend it.  In one of the columns, Richard speculates on whether Britain as a nation is ready to accept proper rewilding of our landscapes and the large species that will go with them.

He uses, as an example, the town of Trujillo in Extremadura, in particular the White Storks that inhabit the main square (Plaza Mayor) of the town. As graceful as these birds look, they are a little bit messy when it comes to nesting and a large variety of detritus ends up being scattered around the areas below their nests, not to mention gallons of ‘whitewash’ which can be squirted surprising distances from a high up nest…

I know Trujillo very well, I lived on the Plaza Mayor for two years at the beginning of the millennium and it is a beautiful medieval town, situated in a bird rich area (although latterly it has been much prettified and is now very much more commercial). I have to admit to the guilty pleasure of watching many a well to do tourist walking around the square, admiring the architecture of the imposing catholic church only to find themselves splattered in a downpour of Stork crap. Yes, I did laugh every time I saw it and yes, I know it was childish.

Trujillo is a major player in terms of internal Spanish tourism and what Richard asks is whether a city like Bath or Brighton would accept these magnificent birds and all the detritus they bring with them (large sticks, bits of rubbish, lots of crap) when they nest, just as readily as Trujillo (and virtually every other settlement in Extremadura) does, or would these British tourist destinations object to this ‘wild’ behaviour on its streets.

I think we can guess the answer.

Once my tours had finished, we headed north out of Extremadura and into an area where the Wolf is very much present, we went there because we like the village and because we know there are Wolves in them there hills – a couple of years ago, when we first visited the area, we stood transfixed on the edge of the village surrounded by the blackness of a moonless night and listened to wolves howling, it absolutely blew us away.

This year we returned, determined to explore the rugged countryside around the village. There are a number of waymarked walking routes heading off from the village that take you deep in to some beautiful landscape, so off we went.  In to Wolf country.  Several miles into the walk we stopped, overlooking a tumbling torrent of a river, we hadn’t seen a soul since we had left the village, nor had we any phone signal, it was just us and the wildness and it was brilliant.  It was here that Richard Mabey’s column came back to me and set me thinking, if it would be difficult to get people to accept ‘messy’ White Storks in Britain, can we really expect them to accept Wolves?

The Wolf is a species that provokes much discussion and argument.  In Britain, the thought of Wolves running free and completely wild would most likely cause mass hysteria; putting a waymarked walk deliberately into an area with Wolves present would be condemned as reckless lunacy; deliberately walking on these routes would more likely be judged as suicidal rather than recreational.  When it comes to the Wolf, the majority of Britain would panic.

Panic is often irrational and in the case of the Wolf it clearly is, but for centuries the Wolf has been demonised by the church as being the devil incarnate, whilst it has also been turned into the bad guy of many a fairy tale and children’s story/film/cartoon etc.  This image is now part of our subconscious and coupled with a separation from the reality of living with Wolves for hundreds of years, we British now have that irrationality very much ingrained when it comes to these apex predators.

In Spain, the Wolf is also the cause of much discussion and argument, but interestingly this has nothing to do with fears of being hunted by packs of them across the landscape, it is all about farming. Wolves kill livestock, there is no getting away from that, they do. I am going to avoid going off on the tangent of Wolves and livestock, as otherwise this blog is in danger of becoming a book, but I mention it to illustrate that in a country where people live with Wolves, the polemical feature of that relationship has nothing to do with human safety.

Between 2000 and 2015, seventy four people were killed in Britain by Cattle, in the same period in Spain, exactly nobody was killed by a Wolf, nor was anyone attacked. Wolves do have the potential to be dangerous, but then so do Bees, so do Cows and so do Humans and we share our lives with these three far more deadlier creatures without thinking about it. The problem is that the truth, with all its statistics and hard facts, just doesn’t seem able to penetrate the wall of irrationality we have when it comes to Wolves and if the truth can’t get through that wall, how can we expect people to accept the Wolf back in Britain?

I loved the feeling of walking through Wolf country, I relished the idea that where we sat down and ate our lunch a Wolf may well have come sniffing by that night, attracted by the exotic scent of our sandwiches, and padded over our footprints. If you ever get me talking about hearing Wolves howl, I can assure you I will go on and on about it for hours. In short, I am an advocate of the Wolf, but I am also a realist and I just can’t see Britain accepting the Wolf back as a truly wild animal. Before you start to react to that, before you start writing about education and economic benefits etc. just think about how much fuss Britain makes over Herring Gulls and sandwiches, Pigeons and their droppings and then ask yourself the question Richard Mabey posed in his book, would we accept a large bird crapping over our historic towns and monuments, over unlucky tourists and, god forbid, shiny cars? I don’t think we would, Britain likes its wildlife to be benign and tidy, packaged into small parcels of land that we can then cycle over and walk our dogs on. The sad truth is Britain won’t accept rewilding in the real sense of the word.

PS Please prove that wrong.

This is Ian’s twelfth Guest Blog here and you can access all of them through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.

Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.

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24 Replies to “Guest blog – The Acceptability of Wildness by Ian Parsons”

  1. My first children's book was 'Kitty the Toon after the famous 'inland' Kittiwakes in Newcastle centre on the River Tyne. You only have to read a few headlines to see why I mentioned them here - 'Council urged not to destroy rare colony of breeding kittiwakes, Newcastle hotel plans to 'electrify' Tyne Bridge towers to shift rare Kittiwakes, Petition · Newcastle city council: Protect Tyne Bridge Kittiwake Colony.
    And on and on.
    These are Newcastle's 'Wolves' but they are always under threat due to their - you guessed it - droppings.

    One of the pictures in the book shows children looking out of the window of that hotel with a Kittiwake nest on the window ledge and their faces light up! Not due to the droppings but the fact the birds can be approached so close without disturbing them.

    On the other side of the river [Gateshead] is the famous Flour Mill now an art centre where a colony of Kittiwakes are used as a tourist attraction and you can go to the top floor to look at the colony from outside. This is the only colony in the world to go inland [12 miles] so why is the council not celebrating these birds instead of trying to move them - poo!

    So to answer the question would Bath except Storks - a big NO.

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  2. Ian - great blog. As someone who spends a certain amount of time in spain (Asturias) i recognise the differing viewpoints on nature. The problem is we have forgotten how to live with the wild in Britain and in particular large predators. I believe the wolf is a very long way off coming back here, but the irony is that it is making a comeback across much of Europe evern turning up in aces such as suburban germany, netherlands and belgium. If not for the channel it would probably be here now. Ecologically it could live here now. I never thought i would see the beaver back in my lifetime, but here we are. An incremental increase in wildness might be how it needs to happen.

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  3. Thanks Ian – very interesting as always. On the subject of Storks and at the risk of offending those who are apparently thinking of installing them in southern England, I think we should leave well alone. Not because they might crap on people (which in the case of those bringing them here would be especially amusing and fully deserved). But for the simple reason there is no evidence they were ever here as a regular breeding species. There have been plenty of records of wandering birds and I think they might have tried to nest once on a church in the 1600s but they were nor regular breeders. Installing them now would be a wildlife gardening ego trip of the very worst kind. I don’t want other people to make decisions on my behalf about which species of wildlife should be present in southern England. If we have wiped out a species and conditions are suitable then by all means try to put it back but let’s not pick and chose the most interesting species we can find from elsewhere in Europe and dump them here – not in the name of conservation anyway.
    On Wolves, I hope we might get there in the end but agree it will take some persuasion. I often wonder what we would make of a Fox reintroduction if keepers/farmers had managed to wipe them out centuries ago. They impact on species of conservation concern, take livestock frequently, work their way through people’s backyard chickens, occasionally kill pets and even (supposedly) menace small children – very occasionally inside their own houses. The case for reintroduction probably wouldn’t get far. Yet who would wish them away now? I suspect even keepers and farmers would hesitate before wishing them gone entirely. With wolves it’s the fact we have got used to being without them, and lost that bond of grudging affection that causes the problem.

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  4. My take is that public reaction to Wolf reintroduction in the UK would be much less hostile than you fear, Ian, once one thinks about the realities of how it might come about.

    First, we would be only looking at small numbers, and in the less populated areas of upland Scotland. So there would be no risk of the general public seeing any sign of them outside this wild land, let alone run any perceived risk of attack. Indeed, the most realistic scenario might mean that the first reintroduction areas would be enclosed estates like Alladale. Such experience would quickly reassure the 'ordinary' citizen.

    If we look at somewhere that a large, indigenous mammal has already been reintroduced i.e. the wild boar of the Forest of Dean, we see that although there is a great polarisation of local opinion, in general, people do tolerate them. This is despite the fact that they are very visible, that they root up verge sides, gardens and green spaces on a regular basis, and that people are very wary of their potential to be dangerous to both people and livestock.

    It seems to me that most opposition to 'messy', uncontrolled wildlife comes from two sources. Your point about urban storks and gulls is well made - yet one would not expect the same people to object if those same birds made the same mess on a farm or seacliff. Which suggests the solution is to rewild our urban selves a bit more. The other major source of opposition comes from those in the countryside who fear any challenge to their control of it - the vested interests of the NFU, large landowners and agribusinesses. These interests will always create scare stories and demand guarantees that their economic and social power remains absolute. This is a political fight about whose land it is anyway...

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    1. "First, we would be only looking at small numbers, and in the less populated areas of upland Scotland."

      Quit using Scotland as the fucking testbed for everything! You'll get my serious resistance for that, from now on it is reintroduce controversial things in English greenbelt or nothing.

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      1. If we could reintroduce wolves and lynx.. my vote would be to start in the corridors of the Palace of Westminster, when Parliament is sitting, of course. I'd pay money to watch that.

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      2. I'd regard being a testbed for a reintroduction programme as a privilege rather than a burden. However, the key question has got to be, 'Where is a reintroduced wolf pack most likely to thrive?'

        There's a reason why the continental populations of wolves persisted only in remote rural and highland areas, and are only recently starting to move into less favoured territories.

        Southern England is exactly the sort of habitat that is least favourable to their survival. There are no blocks of contiguous habitat large enough to support several packs (which we would need to sustain a viable population). The potential prey base would consist of Roe Deer plus the odd rabbit and Muntjac, and virtually all of the land on which the packs hunted would be either intensively farmed or else at town margins. Wolves would quickly learn to incorporate farm and domestic refuse into their diet. Mortality through road and rail collisions - as well as farmers, gamekeepers, idiots with fighting dogs and the like - would be high. So wolf-human conflict would be intense and sustained.

        I could be wrong of course, and I'd be delighted if you could cite any successful wolf reintroductions that have taken place in a habitat similar to Green Belt England.

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        1. Yeah, and I remember being told that the Poll Tax and Trident were doing Scotland a favour too. Nope. No more. Trial things in England first, if it was such an honour and privilege then the greedy grabs down south would have done it already.

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    2. No Michael, no, no, no! I worked on large conservation in Europe for some time. It became very clear that before you release wolves into anywhere you would need a wolf management plan for Scotland, Wales and England because once released they will spread everywhere. Alladale is no use (and Mr Lister has been told this lots!!) because it is way too small and the wolves would escape over his fences (snow drifts are common there) then they would spread. I've watched wolves in Brasov, Romania. 350 000 people and wolves wander about the streets at night. If we release wolves into one part of Britain we effectively release them into everywhere. Would Britain acceot that - no chance! Asking a public gullible enough to vote for economic suicide to see reason when it comes to large mammals (we need bison back too) is asking way too much.

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      1. Thanks Callum. I'm not sure what in my post your 'No, no no!' is referring to! I did not and would not argue that fenced reintroduction such as Alladale are the best option - only that it is a serious possibility (see this recent paper from the University of Sussex http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/45153).

        Are you perhaps suggesting that wolf reintroduction is a non-starter altogether because once introduced they will inevitably 'spread everywhere'? This would seem to fly in the face of the historical evidence. Back in the 1980s, European wolves had been forced back into remote upland strongholds. They weren't then spreading at all. It's only in recent years, and owing to a variety of broader social/economic factors factors such as land abandonment that they have managed to expand, and even then, its a pretty precarious expansion. Look at how the modest expansions into Scandinavia and Austria are still highly contested.

        Moreover, I completely agree that any reintroduction plan should include contingency plans for unanticipated spread. Even if we would be looking at small numbers, effectively limited by all the factors like the availability of wild cervids, and the ecological and social limits that have historically limited their distribution throughout Europe, we do have a growing evidence base for developing such plans in a timely and appropriate way. See here for instance https://wilderness-society.org/four-steps-solve-wildlife-conflict/

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  5. Very nice piece, Ian.
    I'm sure we can all guess what the reaction of the British press and land-based organisations would be to any increase in unmanaged wild places and species.
    But I'm old enough to remember the outrage caused by the introduction of car seat belts, and the predictions from the motor industry that catalytic converters would spell the end of the motor industry and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. There are still one or two (usually rural) clowns who refuse to wear seat belts, but on the whole these changes have been widely accepted.
    The vested interests will always play on people's fears and resistance to change, but that's no reason for not trying. What's needed is either an incremental approach as suggested by Peakaboo, or firm resolve on the part of government. I know which of these I would rely on in the present political climate.

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    1. The problem is the British tabloid press, the Scum and the Wail in particular, who know that outrage sells papers and therefore conspire to keep the English public as fearful and outraged as humanly possibly. There is no way they wouldn't seize on the chance to create some real paper-selling panic over predators.

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  6. There's another aspect of wilderness which we have a cultural problem with, which is the widely held expectation that the countryside should be "tidy", with mown verges, no ground disturbance, and generally neat lines. The unpredictability of a wild landscape, especially one in recovery, is a big part of its appeal to me and many others. But to many of the public that's anathema.

    Just one example - long ago in the SE I was responsible for a small nature reserve grazed by a neighbour's ponies - it ticked along nicely. He was the last working wheelwright in the county, so he had a yard with timber and a wheel cooling pond and off-cuts of wood and iron and bits and pieces of old wooden wagons. All I ever heard from everyone else in the village was how untidy it was and how he should be made to keep it tidy or leave. There's an insidious change that happens when an rural area becomes dominated by urban people with urban attitudes, and much of lowland England has already succumbed (I can't speak for the rest of the UK, maybe its a problem there too).

    Changing attitudes will be a long slow road. Beavers are a great start. Lynx are much less problematic than wolves, their public profile is pretty much a clean slate, they have no cultural baggage. Start the carnivore reintroductions with them.

    I hope to see wolves back in these islands in my lifetime, but I'd strongly suggest we first allow Lynx to get to the same point of acceptance as beavers have achieved now - not perfect but well on the way - before anyone mentions the W word again. If we want to kill re-wilding in its crib, talking about wolves now is the way to kill it.

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    1. In his book 'Common Ground' Richard Maybe mentions friends of his who lived in a rural area that decided to let their hedge grow to be little bigger, i.e bushier, than the those of the other residents. One night while they were sleeping some 'vigilantes' came around and cut the hedge back to the standard height. These people are unbelievable and really need an earfull of why they are so pathetic, lashings of ridicule wouldn't go amiss either.

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  7. An excellent blog. Thanks.
    I spent 32 days of April/May in Extremadura solo mountain biking round the Cicloextremeña which circles the region, luckily staying in hotels or rental properties every night so my tent remained for emergency use. Although I was in remote areas virtually the whole time, I was again astounded how different the attitude to wildlife was to that in Britain. There were raptors everywhere, and I saw 100 on one occasion, photographing 34 in one photograph. Even more amazing to me, in more than one bar, I saw identification charts of raptors. In Spain, most farmers have moved to the towns and villages, leaving only a large guard dog at the farm, and these are the people who populate the bars. Shearing of the sheep was ongoing, and lambs were still being born. I'm sure the farmers do not hate raptors, but they do not have our media, led by the BBC, convinced that farming cannot coexist with raptors and corvids. I thought the welcome huge presence of hirundines and other birds in the towns and villages should be a lesson for the U.K. They are aware that birds can be useful.
    Because hunting with dogs or guns is very popular, the fate of mammals is very different. I only saw 4 foxes this year, including one dead by the track. Even hares were scarce, although the rabbit has fared better. I saw no horned animals at all this year. In the past when I have seen them in Spain, it has always been deep into a park, miles from any tarmac road. They still exist in many hotels and bars, but only as trophies on the wall. I could only dream of seeing a wolf. I had my Gopro on my handlebars set to record at the press of a button the whole time, but it remained unused. I of course was following a set route, not being aware of where wolves might be found.

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    1. Hi Alex, thanks for the positive feedback, much appreciated (and everyone else too!). Just to clear up one point, you won't see wolf in Extremadura, they are not present (officially) although there are healthy populations in the next region north.
      Mammal wise, we saw loads on the tours, Red Deer were abundant as were Iberian Hare and Red Fox, we also had Otter, Egyptian Mongoose, Rabbit, and some Mouflon. I also, finally, saw my first Genet. That's the thing about mammals, all about right place right time!

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  8. Maybe part of the problem with rewilding is that whenever it’s mentioned, wolves are in the forefront. Does it have to be like that, in fact, is it likely to be like that?

    Wouldn’t it be better if we could just take some land and let nature do what she will without interference of any sort....’just to see what happens’.

    Years ago we moved into our present home that had a large, beautiful garden, beautiful in the RHS sense. Since then we have rewilded it. Now, instead of admiring our flowers, although we do still do that, we now admire a myriad of insect and amphibian life.
    Ok, so we may get the odd muntjac because we have no wolves, but it’s really not a problem. The real problem is that most people would think it a mess, unkempt, a disgrace in fact.
    That is a problem that often goes away when they see a broad bodied chaser up close as it emerges. A light bulb moment.
    Admittedly, we have had to manage it to get to this stage, but that is because we are too impatient and old to wait for nature to take its inevitable course. But on a much bigger scale? Well, wouldn’t it be great to find out.

    Perhaps, one day, some NGO will crowdfund the purchase of a grouse moor and just leave it be. Maybe call it ‘Hope moor’.
    Such thoughts are dreams made of.

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  9. A great blog Ian, thanks.

    Interesting point about the wolves. UK public perception seems to be against re-introduction on the grounds of safety. As far as I know there are not any records of attacks on humans anywhere in the world. Attacks on humans by domestic dogs are fairly common, with lots of well documented fatalities, but we seem to put up with this. We have the dangerous dogs act, and I'm sure it must have some effect, but there is never any call for the most dangerous breeds to be banned.

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    1. Some breeds have been banned, they were -true to English form- the breeds preferred by the poor and the scruffy part of the population though. The most dangerous breeds in terms of injuries were the retrievers and jack russells, firmly middle class favourites, and are notably exempt. You see the problem with the UK?

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  10. British people love panicking and getting hysterical. I don't know why, but give any English person an excuse to run around screaming and they grab it with both hands. The other defining part of the English character is the bloody-minded obstinate refusal to change the way they do anything to accommodate anyone or anything else. They have no desire to learn how to live with wildlife, and would rather treat countryside like a suburban municipal park, with its sterile lawns and carpet bedding, than learn how to live with any wildlife larger than a sparrow.

    And that is before we get to farmers and gamekeepers, whose attitude to wildlife is shoot and poison. They are why wolf and lynx reintroduction has to be in greenbelt land around cities (preferably around London), so as to make it harder for the farmers and keepers to get away with hiding the corpses, and to maximise the chances of there being enough people willing to change how they see wildlife in order to set an example to the rest.

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  11. I suspect you are right about our likely acceptance of storks in British town centres - the attitude to gulls is evidence of that and I would also point to the example of starlings. When they roost on piers over water or in reed-beds people are prepared to admire their mesmerising murmurations but large roosts in town centres are frowned upon by councils who do their best to move them on so they don't poo on the pavements.
    However, I think we should be careful about concluding that the UK has a uniquely negative attitude towards wildlife including wolves and raptors. The fairy tales that you refer to are in many cases (most?) English translations of stories originating elsewhere in Europe and wolves are reviled in many countries for reasons based more on prejudice than anything else.
    I have lived in France, have family in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and have travelled in various parts of Europe and in North America and in all these places have come across the very same attitudes to predators that we despair of in the UK. I recall an American hunting enthusiast, for example, informing me that the reaction to any encounter with a wolf was '3 sh' i.e. 'shoot, shovel and shut-up' and, closer to home, anyone familiar with the work of CABS and the efforts of Chris Packham will know that the slaughtering of wild birds from the tiniest warbler to vultures and storks is a serious, widespread problem in many European countries (and not just southern Europe - persecution of raptors also goes on in supposedly 'green' countries such as Germany). In many countries there is more or less open hostility towards conservation groups (in the south of France, for example, there are still places where to park a car with conservation stickers in the windows is to run the risk of slashed tyres or scratched paint perpetrated by hunters).
    It is true that there is more 'wild' life in Spain than in the UK but I don't think this is particularly due to a more enlightened attitude amongst the Spanish people - we also need to take account of the fact that Spain has over twice the land area of the UK but only about 70% of the population. In addition there are large areas of Spain that are significantly less suited to intensive agriculture than most of lowland Britain. Nevertheless where wildlife and commercial interests have come into conflict in Spain it is far from certain that wildlife is always prioritised (see for example the conflict over water resources in the Guadalquivir valley, whilst the development of much of the Spanish coast can hardly be described as a model of environmental best practice).
    In truth, nature is in retreat across much of Europe as indicated for example by recent reports of bird population decline in France and insect biomass decline in German nature reserves. Addressing this requires widespread and substantial changes in attitude and policy across Europe. It is a shame that the UK will no longer have a say in reforming the CAP in only a few short months time but we can still exhort our friends on the Continent to make the necessary reforms whilst, in theory, we are free to adopt a more ecologically benign agricultural subsidy policy of our own (though it is hard to be optimistic about Mr Gove siding with nature when faced with the pleadings of the NFU).
    As to re-wilding, I suspect that across most of Europe you will find more resistance to the idea of re-wilding an area that has previously been 'de-wilded' than to the idea of maintaining existing wildernesses.

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  12. Rewilding starter pack:

    Dig more quarries
    Ban all planners from all disused quarries.
    Build more countryside affordable homes for wildlife - Oh, and for people too.
    Add water -- courtesy beavers.
    Don't laugh at people who fear wildness. (We're all scared of being eaten.)
    Sow rewilding seeds in young peoples' minds
    Wait and watch a bit

    thanks for the blog Ian.

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  13. No one has mentioned it yet but White Storks are being introduced into Surrey and Sussex as we speak. I have seen free flying ones at a place a few miles from me up the road and what a fine sight it was. Whether it is a reintroduction or not I'm open but place name evidence could suggest that a nearby village Storrington is named after the presence of storks or as some people have commented named after heron type birds in general.

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    1. See Ian Carter's comment above about the merits or otherwise of stork reintroduction in southern England.

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