Second Chance Documentary: The White Storks of Rühstädt in Germany
In this special edition of Mooney Goes Wild Derek travels to the picturesque village of Rühstädt in Germany.
(Photo - Getty Images)
Just 240 people live in the village, which in the summer is also home to one of the highest densities of nesting White Storks in Europe. Their enormous nests – essentially, massive bundles of sticks the size of tractor tyres – adorn rooftops all over the village.
So important is Rühstädt for storks that it has been designated an official European Stork Village – the only one in all of Germany, and a key part of the European Stork Village Network, which spans 15 villages in 15 countries.
(Photo - Derek Mooney)
Derek meets Carola Benson a member of the local stork club and who, like most people in the village, is extremely proud of these birds.
The White Stork is a huge, rather imposing bird, standing around 1.1 metres tall and with a wingspan of over 2 metres. Males and females look identical: their bodies and long, snake-like necks are pure white, as are the front halves of their wings. Their flight feathers, however, are jet black, giving the bird a striking two-tone appearance. They stand on extremely long, thin red legs, which match their long, pointed red beaks.
The general appearance of the White Stork is very like that of a large white heron with pied wings. But in flight it is easy to tell the difference . . . once you know the secret. While herons fly with their long necks tucked in against their bodies – in effect, folded into a tight 'S' shape – storks fly with their necks fully outstretched, their long red legs trailing well behind their white tails. It sort of makes them look like a long pale stick with black-and-white wings!
White Storks are highly migratory, with most of the population spending the summer breeding season in Europe, then migrating to sub-Saharan Africa to wait out the northern hemisphere winter. But in recent years it looks like a major behavioural shift has begun, which climate change may well be driving.
(Photo - Niall Hatch)
Derek also interviews Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland who explains how increasing numbers of White Storks are now choosing to winter in Iberia, and indeed even in parts of France, Germany and The Netherlands. Niall believes that climate change maybe effecting the storks annual migration.
In Rühstädt the storks have continued to follow their species’ migratory tradition, arriving back in the village each spring, repairing and adding new sticks to the existing rooftop nests, laying and incubating eggs and then feeding their hungry offspring. A female will lay anywhere from 1 to 7 eggs each season, with 4 being the typical number.
(Photo - Derek Mooney)
Incubation begins as soon as the first egg has been laid, which is unusual in the avian world and is something that storks have in common with birds of prey. This means that the chicks are staggered in age when they hatch out and, as with birds of prey, the elder, stronger chicks usually manage to snag the lion’s share of the food. Only in particularly good years, when there is an abundance of food, will all of the brood survive to take their maiden flights. Unlike birds of prey, stork chicks don’t actively attack and kill their weaker siblings: they simply let the natural laws of supply and demand take their course.
Storks like to nest in secure, elevated locations that are close to open short-cropped fields, marshes and wetlands. This is one of the key reasons why Rühstädt makes such an attractive breeding location for them. White Storks are entirely carnivorous, and the surrounding countryside supports an abundance of food for them and their broods: grasshoppers, earthworms, mice, frogs, lizards and even snakes are all on the menu. They will even catch and eat small birds, if the opportunity arises.
(Photo - Derek Mooney)
Summer on a German rooftop, with no shelter from the blazing sun, can be punishingly hot. Birds are unable to sweat, so it is common to see storks with their bills agape, panting in an effort to cool down. If panting doesn’t quite cut it, however, the storks have evolved a rather more surprising, not to mention unsavoury, method of reducing their body temperatures.
It is certainly true that the sloping roofs below each of the stork nests in Rühstädt have all been thoroughly whitewashed by the birds. But the humans who share the village with them don’t seem mind
In fact, the people of Rühstädt are so happy to accommodate their intercontinental visitors that local farmers even specially cut the grass to help the storks if food supplies are running low.
Right across the European Stork Villages Network, from Spain to Poland, and from Switzerland to Greece, local people go to similar lengths to help their avian neighbours. In many European cultures it is considered good luck to have storks nesting on your property, and people deliberately place old wagon wheels and other platforms on posts and rooftops to encourage the birds to build their nests.
(Video by Carola Benson)
The network was first established in 1994, and in each of the 15 countries where it operates local people must demonstrate that they take special care of their stork populations. In turn, their communities are officially recognised as special cultural and natural heritage sites, promoting tourism and unlocking European funding for conservation and awareness efforts.
In a way, the European Stork Villages Network is a celebration of international cooperation and shared heritage right across a continent that, until recently, was all too frequently torn apart by strife.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Europe underwent an unprecedented trauma. The outbreak of the Second World War brought misery and suffering to millions, as cities, towns and villages were devastated.
It is only in the past couple of centuries that we humans have really begun to understand the phenomenon of bird migration. As recently as the 18th Century, for example, it was widely believed that Swallows spent the winter in hibernation in mud at the bottom of lakes. That seemed the most rational explanation for the sudden vanishing act performed by them each autumn, followed by their abrupt reappearance in the spring.
(Photo - Derek Mooney)
White Storks were also famous for their own sudden annual disappearance once the breeding season had ended. Nobody knew for sure where they went, though on very rare occasions some rather gruesome evidence would present itself. There are multiple records of storks returning to their nesting quarters in Europe impaled by arrows that had passed right through their bodies and become lodged. These arrows looked quite unlike any typically used by hunters in Europe . . . and that’s because they were fired at the birds by tribal hunters in Africa. Skilled though many of the African marksmen were, sometimes a direct hit failed to prove fatal. Vital organs intact, the occasional lucky survivor would continue its migration as normal, returning to Europe pierced through by the arrow.
(Photo - Zoological collection of the University of Rostock)
The Germans even have a name for these birds: Pfeilstorch, or "arrow-storks", and to date no fewer than 25 have been documented. The most famous was found in 1822 near a village called Klütz, in the very north of Germany. It was stuffed and to this day remains on display in the zoological collection of the University of Rostock, the African arrow still piercing its neck.
Arrows are but one of the hazards facing storks during migration. Migration is such a risky business that, as we heard earlier, a growing number of storks are choosing to give it up altogether. Climate change and habitat loss have drastically reshaped the environment upon which storks depend, and the simple fact is that today they have more inhospitable desert and more unpredictable weather to deal with. For a small but growing number, the benefits of migration no longer outweigh the disadvantages.
Storks are large, heavy birds, and flying long distances by flapping massive wings is not a very energy-efficient way to cover long distances. They prefer to travel by soaring on thermals – columns of rising warm air that form when the ground is heated by the sun – in much the same way that vultures, eagles and other large birds of prey do. They use the rising air to lift their bodies high into the sky on motionless outstretched wings. Then, when sufficiently high, they glide onwards, losing height as they do so, until they reach the next thermal, where the whole process begins again. It is a rather slow way to travel, but crucially it requires very little effort.
The problem is that thermals only form over land, not over water. This means that storks and other large soaring birds have great difficulty crossing wide expanses of water, most importantly the Mediterranean Sea.
Their solution is to concentrate at the very shortest crossing points: the Straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco, and the Bosphorus Straits in Turkey, where the gap between continents is just a few kilometres at most. Virtually all of Europe’s migrating White Storks congregate at one of these two points each autumn, streaming across the narrow stretches of water when weather conditions are right and flapping can be kept to a minimum.
In the past, the fact that storks would, without fail, concentrate at these well-known bottlenecks each autumn proved extremely tempting to hunters. Before departing Europe, the birds would generally be soaring at altitude, out of range of most guns. But by the time they had made it to the other side of the straits, with no thermals having kept them aloft over the water, gravity ensured that they were flying much lower . . . making them much easier targets for hunters.
The following spring, as the birds returned north to their breeding grounds, the same drama would play out in reverse, with the birds now easy prey for gunmen on the European side of the Mediterranean. Thankfully wildlife protection laws are much stricter today, and although some illegal killing of storks does still occur, it no longer impacts the population in such a serious way.
(Photo - Getty Images)
Europe is also home to another, related species of stork: the Black Stork. Shier and less tolerant of people than their white cousins, in the breeding season Black Storks shun towns and villages for riverside cliffs and dense forests, nesting on rocky outcrops and in inaccessible large trees. Slightly smaller than White Storks, though still massive birds, they have entirely black plumage, save for a broad triangle of white on the belly that extends onto the birds’ axilliary feathers, or ‘armpits’. Viewed at close range in good light, the black feathers on their necks take on an iridescent green sheen, rather like the tail feathers of a Magpie.
As with White Storks, their beaks and legs are red, they enjoy a carnivorous diet and they migrate between Eurasia and Africa. Black Storks prefer solitude when breeding, so they don’t gather into breeding colonies: nesting pairs like to be at least a kilometre away from their nearest neighbours.
With the decline of hunting pressures and the introduction of conservation measures, both of Europe’s stork species appear to be doing quite well, and their futures seem secure. The same cannot be said for the White Stork’s closest living relative, unfortunately. The Oriental Stork is the East Asian counterpart of the White Stork, and the two species look extremely similar. The Oriental Stork is even larger than its western relation, however, and it has a robust all-black beak, rather than a red one. It also differs in having pale eyes: the eyes of White Storks are dark.
Formerly a common breeder in marshland in China, Korea, Japan and southern parts of the Russian Far East, in the 19th Century a combination of hunting pressure and habitat loss devastated the Oriental Stork population, and a severe decline set in. By 1960 the species was extinct in Japan and the Korean Peninsula, and total population numbers may have fallen as low as just a few hundred individuals.
(Photo - Getty Images)
Happily, strict legal protections in Russia have greatly aided the species’ recovery in recent decades. Reintroduction programmes are currently underway in both Japan and Korea, using chicks from the increasing Russian population, and population numbers are now back in the low thousands. In Japan, a network of stork villages, similar to the one that spans Europe, has been established, and the birds are viewed with immense local pride.
As the community of Rühstädt has proven, local pride, increased awareness and a willingness to make allowances for nature can go a long way towards saving a species. The White Stork is once again a common and familiar sight in villages across Europe, and even appears to be expanding its range. A pair nested in England this summer, for the first time in over 600 years. Could they also begin breeding here in Ireland?
So, watch this space. Before long, storks in Ireland may no longer be confined to margarine wrappers and tall tales about bringing babies . . . they might be soaring in our skies, foraging in our fields and nesting on our rooftops. Perhaps one day the time will come for us to join the European Stork Village Network too!
The Dawn Chorus
Back from the Brink is a one-hour programme that plans to celebrate the hard work, dedication, and commitment of conservationists who are striving to save endangered species from extinction. Here, Derek Mooney discusses this unique, pan-European natural history event.
I've been working in natural history broadcasting for over 30 years now. In that time, I’ve seen some truly wonderful sights, but I’ve also seen first-hand the problems that wildlife is facing, both in Ireland and around the globe. There has been a growing awareness amongst the general public, particularly in the last few years, of the threats to our environment and biodiversity.
In many ways, this has been long overdue, but I’m also aware that for a lot of people the current state of our planet can seem overwhelming, even depressing. We are increasingly bombarded by tales of doom and gloom. Issues like climate change and animal extinction are too often made to seem insurmountable, as though tragedy is a foregone conclusion, but that’s simply not true. It’s not too late to help nature.
We need to find a way to bring some much-needed optimism back into the conservation. That’s definitely what attracted me most to Back from the Brink. Through my work over the years on Mooney Goes Wild, in particular, I have met thousands of dedicated scientists and conservationists out there, fighting hard to save endangered species and working miracles. By telling some of their stories, I thought we could inspire people and show that there is every reason for hope.
Nature is resilient, and if given a chance it can recover from all sorts of abuse. It was once thought that the Red Kite, a stunning bird of prey, was lost forever from Irish skies, shot and poisoned to extinction. To see dozens of them now flying over the Co. Wicklow countryside again, all thanks to the dedication of people who simply weren’t prepared to give up, was a humbling and inspirational experience.
The same goes for the enormous efforts that I witnessed to safeguard the growing populations of Wolves in Italy, Brown Bears in Spain and Eurasian Beavers in The Netherlands, to give a few key examples from the programme. Perhaps the most sobering part for me personally was seeing the dramatic effects that climate change has wrought on the Swiss Alps, where glaciers are rapidly melting and high mountain habitats are disappearing, along with the unique animals that live there. Even then, against all the odds, people are fighting back.
Back from the Brink is not just a story about animals. At its core, it’s really a story about people. We, humans, have caused our planet’s problems, but people are also the key to fixing them. Literally every conservationist I interviewed for the programme spoke with such passion about their work, coupled with an unshakeable belief that what they were doing was utterly worthwhile, and I think that shines through on the screen. It must do because even the production crews, and there were many across Europe, not least our own team here in Ireland, headed by Colm Crowley from RTÉ Cork and scientific advisor Niall Hatch, were totally dedicated to this project.
We want to empower as many of those viewers as possible, and to reinforce the truth that every single one of us can play a role in saving endangered species and the wider environment. It’s not just about doing your bit – it takes much more than a bit, it takes a lot! – but about understanding that we need to accept fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives. Having seen what can be achieved when the will is there, it will be well worth it, believe me.
Watch Back from the Brink at 6:30pm on Monday, 30th of December on RTÉ One.
Second Chance Archive
Have another chance to hear some of our Mooney Goes Wild programmes uncovered from the RTÉ Radio 1 archive. Click the links below for more information.
The Dance of the Cuckoos - Mooney Goes Wild Special
The Blue Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Feathers - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Bergen Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Sparrows - Mooney Goes Wild Special
Wildlife Film Makers - Mooney Goes Wild Special
The Common Swift - Mooney Goes Wild Special
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Ireland and Climate Change: Are we up for it? Professor John Sweeney - Maynooth University
When the countries of the world assembled for the now famous Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they undertook to take the necessary steps to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. Defining what was dangerous proved a difficult task, however, and largely as a result of the European Union’s prodding, a value of 2oC warming above pre-industrial times was generally adopted as the criterion. Gradually the rest of the world fell into line with this, except the Small Island Developing States of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For them this was something that would have condemned their island homes to submergence beneath the rising sea. So when the Paris Agreement emerged in 2015, it had a nuanced objective: "to hold increases in global temperatures to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit increase to 1.5 °C." To flesh out what the 1.5oC target would actually mean, the Conference asked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a Special Report, which they did in October of last year.
The report confirmed that significantly greater climate problems would be experienced at a warming of 1.5oc compared to the present day, even though we have already warmed by 1oC over pre-industrial levels. These would include increases in extremes of heat and heavy rainfall events in several regions, accompanied by more frequent and more intense droughts. But most worrying was the realisation that the remaining carbon budget to avoid this warming would only last for a decade or two at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions. After this budget was exhausted the carbon would be in the atmosphere for a century or more. Globally, emissions needed to fall by 45% on 2010 levels by 2030. It was this realisation that galvanised many groups and energised many individuals around the world, culminating in the mass protests we see around us. This was true, even in an Ireland whose compliance with its international obligations are failing miserably and its laggard status approaching the level of a national shaming. As a developed country with historical responsibility, we should be bearing more of the burden of tackling this problem than most other countries. Instead our per capita emissions are 50% higher than the EU average and place us as the second worst contributor to climate change on a per capita basis within the EU. The recently released 2018 figures confirm we are now 5M tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the limit we agreed solemnly with our EU partners over a decade ago.
At the same time as we declared a climate emergency in Ireland this year we also declared a biodiversity emergency. This was in recognition that Ireland was also experiencing serious threats to its species and habitats, partly due to climate and also a number of other drivers, such as agricultural intensification. Another UN report in spring 2019 confirmed that human actions are now threatening more species with global extinction than ever before. The current rate of species extinction is 10-100 times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years. Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades.
In Ireland, our peatland, coastal marsh and mountain habitats are particularly at risk. 29 different bird species and 120 species of flowering plants are in serious decline. Some bird species such as the Corn Bunting and Corncock have become extinct. Others such as the Curlew have been decimated and many species such as the pearl mussel, bumblebee, barn owl and marsh fritillary butterfly face serious threats. At the same time invasive species are moving into newly favourable ecological niches providing additional competition and stress to native species.
Ireland has warmed by 0.5oC over the past 30 years and is likely to warm by a similar amount over the next 2-3 decades. This will have impacts on our growing season, making crops like maize much more feasible to grow. However, projected changes in rainfall are likely to be the main climate change problem Ireland will face. Already we are seeing an increase in intense rainfall events. Increased winter flood problems will result and the government will need to find €1B of taxpayers’ money to protect against future events. Winter storms are also likely to become more problematical. Winter 2013/14 was the stormiest winter in Ireland for at least 143 years. Winter 2015/16 was the wettest winter on record over half of Ireland. Former hurricanes such as Ophelia and Lorenzo pose additional late autumn threats which are likely to increase as the Atlantic warms and summer droughts will bring their own difficulties for agriculture and municipal water supplies. All in all, it is changing weather extremes which will bring the message of climate change home to Irish people and instil in them the urgency of playing a constructive role in international negotiations.
Conscious that it their legacy that is under threat, young people have been in the vanguard of protest. The ‘Fridays for Future’ schools protest has taken up the baton of Greta Thunberg who has become the icon that communicates the reality of climate change more effectively than a hundred graphs and tables. Armed with the factual knowledge of the Green Schools, it is to these inspirational leaders that the rest of society must now turn. The time for tinkering around the edges with excuses about efficiency or identifying ‘low hanging fruit’ on the basis of economic cost benefit curves is now over. The problem is now an ethical one of intergenerational equity, one where scientists can no longer be labelled ‘alarmists’ but rather ‘realists’. In an emergency the unthinkable has to be considered and Ireland is now at a crossroads where the next decade will determine what legacy we leave to the next generation. It’s an awesome responsibility. Are we up for it or not?
Professor John Sweeney is Ireland’s foremost climatologists and was a lecturer at Maynooth University’s Geography Department for 40 years until his recent retirement. Over the past 30 years he has published approximately 60 scientific papers and edited and co-authored texts on various aspects of climatology and climate change in Ireland.
Statement from BirdWatch Ireland, Thurs Feb 28th 2019:
BirdWatch Ireland wishes to remind the public, local authorities and contractors that hedge-cutting is NOT permitted between 1st March and 31st August inclusive, except in the case of any of the derogations permitted under the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended. The Heritage Act 2018 gives the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the power to make certain changes to these dates, but it is important to note that, as yet, the Minister has not done so. As a result, the usual dates when hedge-cutting is prohibited currently remain unchanged.
It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here. To read the Heritage Bill 2016, as passed by Dáil Éireann on July 5th 2018, click here. To read the Heritage Act 2018, click here.
To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.
Caring For Wild Animals
Please note that many species of mammals, birds, invertebrates etc... are protected under law and that, even with the best of intentions, only someone holding a relevant licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service should attempt the care of these animals. For full details, please click here to read the NPWS Checklist of protected & rare species in Ireland. If you are concerned about a wild animal, please contact your local wildlife ranger - click here for details.
Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild. If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit www.irishwildlifematters.ie