Despite the efforts of mankind and the climate to eradicate these beautiful creatures from our shores, the Little Egret seems to be making a successful comeback. We see these medium-sized all-white herons, with their distinctive yellow feet and black legs regularly on the levels. This one was hunting around the Victorian reservoirs at Litton and despite my best efforts, proved difficult to photograph. According to Birds Britannica… “the species is still most common as an autumn and winter visitor to sites in south-west England, like the Exe and Tamar estuaries.” In Britain it was a rare vagrant from its 16th century disappearance until the late twentieth century, and did not breed here. There are now small breeding groups in England and Ireland; the first being recorded on Brownsea Island, Dorset in 1996. Since then it has been moving northwards and was recorded as breeding in Berkshire for the first time in 2007.
The Little Egret was probably common across much of England in the 15th century, but became extinct through a combination of over-hunting in the late mediaeval period and climate change at the start of the Little Ice Age. The inclusion of 1,000 egrets, among numerous other birds, in the banquet to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York at Cawood Castle in 1465 indicates the presence of a sizeable population in northern England at the time, and they are also listed in the coronation feast of King Henry VI in 1429. They had disappeared by the mid 16th century, when William Gowreley, ‘yeoman purveyor to the Kinges mowthe’, “had to send further south” for egrets.
Further declines occurred throughout Europe as the plumes of the Little Egret and other egrets were in demand for decorating hats. They had been used for this purpose since at least the 17th century but in the 19th century it became a major craze and the number of egret skins passing through dealers reached into the millions. Egret farms were set up where the birds could be plucked without being killed but most of the supply was obtained by hunting, which reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels and stimulated the establishment of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889.
By the 1950s, the Little Egret had become restricted to southern Europe, and conservation laws protecting the species were introduced. This allowed the population to rebounded strongly; over the next few decades it became increasingly common in western France and later on the north coast. It bred in the Netherlands in 1979 with further breeding from the 1990s onward.