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Wildlife Column: The Little Egret: a welcome return!

Ian Rotherham.
Ian Rotherham.

One of the most gorgeous birds, the Little Egret is on its way back. Once commonplace, the egret was abundant in our region with the feast for the enthronement of George Neville as the Archbishop of York in 1466, including ‘1,000 Egritts’ on the menu! However, with the progressive drainage of the great lowland wetlands from the 1600s onwards the species contracted its range.

Like many others such as Common Crane and Purple Heron, the Little Egret was headed for extinction in Britain and was lost for around three centuries or more.

Little Egret.

Little Egret.

However, they are now back in England, in our region, and doing very well indeed. Not only that, they are being closely followed by the similar ‘Cattle Egret’ and their larger cousin, the

‘Great White Egret’. They are stunning birds and are pretty easy to spot in the right locations. They tend to be most likely in lowland wet sites but can drop down onto reservoirs and elsewhere when on migration. I haven’t yet heard of them breeding locally but it is only a matter of time. Across the UK generally, egrets first appeared in reasonable numbers in 1989 with the first breeding in Dorset in 1996. This colonisation has followed naturally through range expansion into western and northern France, and then across into Britain. Since that time the bird has spread rapidly and is now established at numerous sites along the south coast and spread up both east and west coasts too. They occur as both a breeding species and a winter visitor, and in increasing numbers too. In winter and on migration they are found further inland. We now have over 700 breeding pairs and in winter, around 5,000 or more birds.

As might be expected of a member of the heron family, egrets all eat fish as their main food item, and their spread has been aided by improved water quality in many areas. However, both habitat creation and climate change warming have played a part in the spread. It is increasing worthwhile looking out for the Great White Egret and the smaller Cattle Egret too.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.