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History repeats itself?

?once again RSPB fights the cause of the Little Egret

It`s so easy to be complacent about Little Egrets these days, isn`t it? There was that flush of birding excitement as, from 1989 onwards, that pioneering influx of birds tiptoed like the whitest of bridesmaids across southern estuaries and pools. They dithered a while, not quite getting it together on the home front, but by 1996, the bridesmaids had turned into brides with the first successful breeding in Dorset. Observers at the time predicted that, given mild winters, the population might expand along much of the south coast, much as the Normandy birds had done from its nine pairs in 1993 to 120 pairs in 1997. Of course the projection was to prove accurate, though who could have foreseen that, within five years, Egrets would be breeding in the northwest. Observers at the time predicted that, given mild winters, the population might expand along much of the south coast, much as the Normandy birds had done from its nine pairs in 1993 to 120 pairs in 1997. Of course the projection was to prove accurate, though who could have foreseen that, within five years, Egrets would be breeding in the northwest. Although the Little Egret honeymoon is now over for most birdwatchers, the thrill of watching the range expansion unfold is still as exciting as ever. Quite how many pairs there are, in quite how many places, remains something of a mystery, understandable with the continuing threat of egg thieves and concerns about disturbance whilst they establish each new colony. But now a new site can be revealed, none other than directly underneath the shadow of the Cliffe airport proposal in North Kent. The location is Britain`s largest heronry at the RSPB Northward Hill reserve. In 2000, two pairs of egrets arrived late, bred, and raised four young. The following year, there were four pairs and ten young. This year, expansion has accelerated with an estimated 18 pairs, perhaps 15% of the UK population. As RSPB reserve Warden Gordon Allison says, There are just young birds everywhere.And last year, the heronry developed another Little Egret facet. In late summer, Northward Hill began to play host to an egret roost unprecedented this far to the east. It was first discovered by local birdwatcher, Trevor Bowley. Watching from the sea wall out towards the end of the Hoo Peninsula last July, we noticed that towards dusk, egrets were unexpectedly flying up-river. We suspected they were using a little copse nearby, but this proved empty, so by the time we checked out Northward Hill on the 28th, there were already 74 in the roost!Trevor and other local birdwatchers continued to make counts, which peaked at 134 in mid-August. This summer, numbers have once again climbed impressively, although the roost split between Northward Hill and Cliffe Quarries. The new Northward Hill watch point is a good (although distant) vantage point to see the birds arrive, often dropping in from several hundred feet up. There is a great privilege in seeing a bird success story such as this. Possibly climate change has played a small part with the run of mild winters keeping winter mortality low. But it does seem that the Little Egret`s triumphant arrival in Britain was largely natural, a chance switch in dispersal habits that paid dividends. The greater protection they have enjoyed under the EC Birds Directive and now find on British nature reserves can claim its part too. And of course this for a bird that was so utterly decimated by the plume trade in Victorian times.The great irony is that these birds, whose plight provided such an impetus for the formation and success of the RSPB at the end of the 19th Century, should then eventually prosper at the end of the 20th, only to then come up against, at least at Northward Hill, a much more modern threat. Your support for the NoAirport@Cliffe campaign will once again be fighting the cause of the Little Egret just as the early crusading conservationists bravely did with their placards.

Perry Haines
NA@C RSPB Campaign Co-ordinatorBackground?

Little Egret re-colonised France (Camargue) in 1931 after extinction by plume trade
Since `1950s, egrets began to winter on northern side of the Mediterranean (European populations generally migrated to Africa)
First bred Brittany 1960.
One colony only until 1983. Dramatic influx arrived late summer and many over wintered.
Rapid subsequent range expansion along Brittany coast. Between 1983-1993, occupied 600km of French coast
1989 - unprecedented influx of 40 birds to UK
First bred 1996 - 2 sites, including 1 pair on Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour raising 3 young
By 1997, 5 pairs on Brownsea raising 12 young
Latest breeding figures from British Birds: 1999, 9 localities, 30-36 pairs
Most sites in UK associated with grey heronsEgrets and the hat trade:

In the second half of the 19th Century, general economic prosperity encouraged the increasingly-wealthy middle classes to emulate the fashionable elite, including the wearing of feathers in hats. Hats grew bigger, requiring more and more feathers, indeed whole wings and even whole birds were not uncommon!There were marked declines and extinctions of Little Egrets in many areas due to this trade as egret plumes were particularly favoured.The trade began to draw some criticism from concerned individuals in the UK and the USA. The first Audubon societies were organized in the USA in 1886, and of the embryonic RSPB in 1889, largely with the same purpose of countering the abominable use of wild bird feathers in fashion.In 1891, the Society for the Protection of Birds produced Leaflet 1 - Destruction of Ornamental Plumaged Birds.
By 1902, the trade in wild bird feathers was continuing, as exampled by official trade figures of auctions at the London Commercial Sales Rooms that year: Sold were 1,608 packages of… herons` plumes. From almost 200,000 herons killed at their nests, where two to three times that number of young or eggs would have been destroyed too. The plumes were worth about twice their weight in gold.At Smith College, USA, two young students set up an Audubon Society with the aim of persuading girls not to wear feathered hats: developed a plan to protect plume birds. We won`t say too much about the hats, though, they agreed. We`ll take the girls afield, and let them get acquainted with the birds. Then of inborn necessity they will wear feathers never more.

4th July 2014