Choughs were once an iconic species on the White Cliffs of Dover. Kent Wildlife Trust along with partners, the Wildwood Trust, English Heritage and Paradise Park, are bringing an aviary of choughs to Dover Castle for the public to experience a forgotten history.
These iconic birds, which are part of the crow family, fell victim to intensive farming practices and historical persecution, leading to widespread extinction with only small populations surviving in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man (and Jersey).
Can you imagine seeing a chough flying over the White Cliffs of Dover for the first time in over 200 years?
The Dover Castle aviary is the first step in the vision to reintroduce choughs to Kent. Dover’s chalk grasslands and white cliffs provide nest sites and rich diversity of insects on which choughs feed. We want to create a Wilder Kent by restoring this charismatic but threatened bird, with its glossy black plumage, red legs and bright red beak.
Thomas Becket, King Henry, Canterbury and the chough
Many will know the story of the murder of Thomas Becket, last year marked 850 years since his dramatic murder, but you may be less familiar with a mythical connection to the chough.
It is rumoured that as Thomas lay dying, a crow flew down and by paddling in his blood it acquired a startling red beak and feet, transforming into a chough.
There was a huge public reaction to Thomas’s death. Pilgrims began to arrive at Canterbury Cathedral from across Europe and King Henry II received many high-status visitors.
Henry invested in Dover Castle, creating the great tower keep as a fitting venue, suitable for important travellers on their way to Canterbury, and making it truly ‘fit for a king’.
Sometime after his death, Thomas was attributed a coat of arms featuring three choughs, which first appears about 100 years later in Canterbury Cathedral, and, in the 14th century, the City of Canterbury adopted a coat of arms with three choughs and a royal lion. But no one really knows why the chough became associated with Thomas, other than the legend of the blooded crow. Whatever its origin, the chough has a long history in heraldry in glass, sculpture, coats of arms, flags, and even pub signs!
Kent Wildlife Trust, Wildwood Trust and English Heritage will unveil a brand new chough aviary at Dover Castle this month. Visitors will now be able to get up close to four young red-billed choughs, who will be living at the aviary, and learn more about their cultural and ecological significance in Kent.
The choughs living in the aviary hatched earlier this year at Wildwood Trust, as part of a breeding programme to help reverse falling numbers of the chough population across the UK. A dedicated team of keepers from Wildwood have spent the past three months rearing and training the choughs in preparation for their move to the castle.