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Red-billed choughs return to Dover Castle

Rare red-billed choughs - once extinct in Kent - have returned to Dover Castle as part of a conservation project to secure the future of the species.

The four birds have set up home in a custom built aviary at the historic castle, having spent the winter at their birthplace, Wildwood Trust, between Canterbury and Herne Bay.

WATCH: The birds arrive at Dover Castle's aviary

The choughs will act as ambassadors for the wider chough reintroduction - a project that is finally possible due to years of extensive restoration work on chalk grassland, prime chough habitat, across Kent.

This is a joint collaboration between Wildwood, Kent Wildlife Trust and English Heritage.

The four birds - named Becket, Eleanor, Vera and Pyrrho by the public - will spend the next eight months at the Dover Castle aviary.

Members of the public will be able to see them up close, and learn about the species’ cultural and historical links to the county.

Their previous stay between August and December 2021, saw thousands of visitors ‘flock’ to the aviary.

Red-billed choughs have returned to Dover Castle. All pictures: Wildwood Trust/Kent Wildlife Trust/English Heritage
Red-billed choughs have returned to Dover Castle. All pictures: Wildwood Trust/Kent Wildlife Trust/English Heritage

The move follows the arrival of three new breeding pairs of chough to Wildwood Trust from Paradise Park earlier this month.

These pairs are now in breeding aviaries and will begin nest building and egg laying, with chicks expected in May.

Laura Gardner, director of conservation at Wildwood Trust, explained: "This is such an exciting time for everyone working on the project.

"It will be the final stint for our four red-billed ambassadors at Dover Castle, who we’ve watched grow and flourish from day one.

"We’re expecting to see chough chicks hatching here at Wildwood in just a matter of weeks.

It is hoped the species will soon fly free over the White Cliffs of Dover
It is hoped the species will soon fly free over the White Cliffs of Dover

"The hope is that those chicks will go on to become the first to soar freely above the White Cliffs in 200 years so we’ll actually be seeing history come to life when they’re released in Dover later this year.”

Kirsty Swinnerton, wilding ecologist from Kent Wildlife Trust added: "We are so excited to welcome back four young choughs to Dover Castle.

"Visitors, volunteers and staff will be able to see these cheeky birds up close once again, this time all grown up.

"When the choughs left Dover for Wildwood last winter, they had pale orange beaks.

"Now that they are a little older, they will be showing off their signature scarlet bills - an iconic characteristic of this species which is featured throughout Kent’s history and local architecture, from crests to pub signs!

"We’re so grateful for everyone’s support and we cannot wait to see choughs flying free across Kent later in the summer, enjoying the White Cliffs of Dover for the first time in over 200 years."

The choughs’ return to Dover comes weeks after the completion of a successful joint fundraising appeal between Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust to help raise vital funds to ensure the future of the innovative project.

The Trusts say they were overwhelmed by the 'generous donations' received, reaching a combined total of £240,000 to support the project.

It has been made possible by help of volunteers from English Heritage, who care for the choughs during their stay at the castle.

Gavin Wright, visitor assistant at English Heritage said: "It has been wonderful to see our visitors learn about the species and discover the chough’s long history in the area.

“With the imminent re-introduction of the chough chicks to the wilds of Kent, we hope that it won’t be long until we will be seeing choughs flying over the White Cliffs once more.”

The red-billed chough is a rare member of the crow family with glossy black plumage, red legs and a distinctive bright red beak.

The chough was once native to Kent but became extinct in the county more than 200 years ago due to changing farming practices and persecution.

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