Published: 16:10, 30 December 2021
| Updated: 16:25, 30 December 2021
The Archbishop of Canterbury has thrown his support behind a project that will see a rare bird reintroduced to Kent more than 200 years after it vanished.
The red-billed chough will make a return to the Garden of England next year thanks to a ground-breaking conservation programme by Wildwood Trust.
The species is deeply rooted in Kent's history and frequently appears on flags, sculptures, pub signs, and coats of arms - including that of the City of Canterbury.
Legend has it that the chough got its distinctive red beak and feet by paddling in the blood of Archbishop Thomas Becket after his murder at Canterbury Cathedral.
It was once native to Kent but became extinct in the county more than two centuries ago due to changing farming practices and persecution.
Following "catastrophic" decline across the country, there are now only 23 breeding pairs left in England.
But Wildwood Trust, based near Herne Bay, now hopes to release choughs into the wild annually beginning in 2022, so they can once again settle and breed in Kent.
The new rewilding project has gained the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Yesterday, on the 851st anniversary of Thomas Becket's murder, The Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby said: “I am inspired to support Wildwood Trust and partners in restoring the iconic chough to Kent.
"The anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket is a poignant time to talk about this project and spread understanding of why the chough is featured at Canterbury Cathedral and in the Canterbury City Coat of Arms.
"It is so important that we return these birds to our skies.”
The Dean of Canterbury, The Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis, visited Wildwood's aviary yesterday where he was delighted to meet four young choughs named Becket, Eleanor, Vera and Pyrrho, which hatched earlier this year.
He said: “The candle still burns all the time on the site of Becket’s shrine in the Cathedral and the choughs are the signs of Becket so the connection is very strong.
"To have them back in Kent, if they’re going to breed - and we so hope this programme is successful - would be a lovely link with the past.
"This is the first time I’ve met the choughs live and they were really love to meet - really beautiful birds.”
The red-billed chough is a rare member of the crow family with glossy black plumage, red legs and a bright red beak.
The Wildwood Trust hopes to rear young choughs at its park, before releasing them on the White Cliffs of Dover.
Laura Gardner, director of conservation at Wildwood, said: “This is such an important project and the choughs he met today have become amazing ambassadors for their species and for their longer-term reintroduction.
"By shining a light on conservation projects like this, we hope we can pave the way for many more and together we can start to tackle the biodiversity crisis we are all facing.”
Wildwood recently launched a major appeal, aiming to raise £60,000 to ensure the future of the innovative project.
To support the chough appeal or for more information, you can click here.
The project is the latest in a number of significant rewilding projects headed up by Wildwood Trust.
Another project will see the UK's first conservation herd of European bison begin roaming in the 200 hectares of Blean Woods near Canterbury in the new year.