The return of the egret to Derbyshire - a triumphant tale of survival and return
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 March 2020
Paul Hobson tells the heartening account of the survival and return to our shores of a bird whose beautiful plumage once resulted in its downfall.
There can be few wildlife stories as impressive as the amazing return of the little egret, yet strangely its tale is not as well known as that of other returnees such as the osprey and the red kite. Perhaps this reflects our media bias (within the avian world anyway) to birds of prey.
Little egrets are beautiful, snow-white herons with black legs and dandelion-yellow feet. They are water birds of coast and inland wetlands that were once a common feature of Britain's aquatic world a thousand years ago. Like their cousins, the bittern and grey heron, they make tasty eating and were therefore avidly sought after for the table.
By the Middle Ages they were featuring in many a royal banquet, such as that of Henry VI in 1429. However, the writing was on the wall, and numbers in Northern England even then were declining. The lust for egret flesh continued and the little egret rapidly became another British extinction.
Unfortunately the appetite of humans, particularly in terms of the little egret, didn't stop there. By the early 17th century a new threat had arisen - the desire for exotic feathers to deck the hats of the Baroque era's rich and famous. This fad slowly grew into a global craze and by the 19th century the demands of the insatiable Victorian fashionistas were seeing European herons and egrets slaughtered in their millions. In 1887 alone a single London dealer sold two million egret skins.
The slaughter didn't restrict itself to adult birds either. When they are in breeding plumage egrets have gorgeous, fine, white head feathers, something the Victorians nicknamed 'osprey plumes' and which they coveted for their hats. So, it's easy to see why breeding birds were targeted - birds with nests of eggs or young chicks.
By the end of the Victorian period, egrets both little and great - its much larger and rarer cousin - had been pushed back to the limits of Southern Europe. Of course, it's a broad brush that paints all Victorian women, and the men who supplied the feathers, as bad. Whenever and wherever there is unjust, and in many cases cruel, treatment of wild creatures there will always be a few dissenting voices. In Britain two groups of women formed two societies in 1889, The Plumage League and The Fur, Fin and Feather Folk. The first group was initiated by Emily Williamson in Didsbury in Manchester, the latter by Eliza Phillips, Etta Lemon and Catherine Hall in Croydon. Both groups campaigned to halt the barbaric trade in plumes, which not only included little egrets in Europe and Africa but also the mindless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of kittiwakes and great crested grebes in Britain. The two groups merged, campaigned incredibly successfully, and within a few years became arguably one of Europe's most powerful and successful conservation organisations, the RSPB.
However, even with all this amazing conservation work in Britain, little egrets were still threatened on mainland Europe and it was not until 1950 that effective protection was created to help them. It now becomes a very different and inspiring story. Little egrets are true survivors and have an amazing propensity to bounce back. They are also natural colonisers and explorers, two features that have helped them move inexorably back across France.
By the late 1980s significant numbers had recolonised the south of England. The first British breeding success was in 1996 on Brownsea Island and since then they have literally not looked back (at least not southwards) as they spread west into Devon and Cornwall and east into East Anglia. By the Millennium they had become a common site on many of southern England's estuaries and wetlands.
The march north continued as they eagerly took to new wetlands such as gravel pits and old flooded sand quarries - one of our few increasing British habitats. The first little egret in Derbyshire was seen in 1974, the second 20 years later, three in 1989, and since then numbers have been increasing every year until they hit over a 100 in 2008.
Most of Derbyshire's little egrets are seen in the lower elevations of the Trent Valley and its associated wetlands, such as Aston-on-Trent and Willington. For enthusiasts who live further north in the county, Ogston has regular visits.
Derbyshire's red letter day, from a little egret perspective anyway, was in 2018 when the first recorded pair bred at Drakelow. The egret really had landed! The future is almost certainly bright. The birds should breed increasingly every year as they are doing in Wales and other northern English counties. At last our wetlands - many of which wouldn't have existed the last time the birds graced our county hundreds of years ago - have an elegant and absolutely charming heron stalking the shallow shores on its quest for insects, fish and amphibians.
This might be a little premature, but the little egret's larger cousin, the great white egret, seems to have also now successfully colonised Britain. The first breeding took place in Somerset in 2012 and by 2017 seven pairs had nested successfully at two different sites. Could this at some point in our future become another Derbyshire breeding egret? It would be amazing to think so.