A rare bird has returned to the White Cliffs of Dover for the first time in centuries thanks to a ground-breaking conservation project.
Four juvenile red-billed choughs are now living in a specially built aviary which was unveiled at Dover Castle on Friday.
The launch is part of a wider plan by Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust to reintroduce this beautiful and at-risk species into the wild in Kent next year.
In the meantime visitors to the English Heritage-managed castle can get up close to the birds and learn more about their cultural and ecological significance.
Dover Castle provides a unique natural and historical setting to inspire people about the project.
English Heritage senior properties curator Roy Porter said: "Many think of ‘bluebirds over The White Cliffs of Dover,’ but choughs were a common sight here in Kent when Dover’s defences were first built.
"With hundreds of thousands of visitors to Dover Castle every year, the chough aviary will introduce our visitors to a unique bird with historic links to Kent, and celebrate the return of the chough to the area.”
The red-billed chough is a rare member of the crow family.
It is identified by its glossy black plumage, red legs and a distinctive bright red beak.
According to the British Trust for Ornithology, there are 330 breeding pairs in the UK. Its length is 40 cm, wingspan 82 cm and each bird weighs around 310g.
Choughs became extinct in Kent more than 200 years ago due to changing farming practices and persecution.
The choughs living in the aviary hatched earlier this year at British wildlife conservation charity, Wildwood Trust, in nearby Herne Bay in a breeding programme to help reverse the falling population across the UK.
A dedicated team of keepers from Wildwood have spent the past three months rearing and training the birds in preparation for their move to the clifftop castle.
This has included enrichment to habituate the birds to their new surroundings, including new sights and sounds.
Wildwood Trust director of conservation Laura Gardner said: “We are so excited to see the chicks grow and become amazing ambassadors for their species - and for the longer term reintroduction.
"The chough is a charismatic and intelligent bird and everyone will fall in love with these characters - they all have such different personalities.
“It is our hope that the birds at Dover Castle will enable the people of Kent to reconnect with this iconic and emblematic species and take us one step closer to the restoration of red-billed chough populations across Southern England.”
Despite being extinct in the county for two centuries, the chough is embedded in Kent’s history. It is often found on pub signs and coats of arms.
Legend has it that the chough even got its red bill and beak following the murder of Thomas Becket when a crow flew down and walked in his blood, turning its bill and feet red and transforming into a chough.
Kent Wildlife Trust wilding ecologist Kirsty Swinnerton said: “A chance to see the red-billed chough back in Kent after more than 200 years is the perfect example of history coming to life as well as showcasing an enigmatic species that can give people an opportunity to connect with the past and be part of a promising future for this species.
“This is reflected in the partnership, which brings vital skills and unique perspectives to this project.
"It’s a wonderful crossover of history and wildlife right on Dover’s doorstep.
"We couldn’t be more excited to see this happen, and we hope that this is just a stepping-stone to the widespread recovery of the red-billed chough in England.”