Little egret

Here is a post from April 2020 that might be of interest to our growing little egret fan club.

The little egret (Egretta garzetta) is a small white heron with long distinctive plumes on its crest, back and chest; it has black legs and bill, and yellow feet to match its yellow eyes.

It is a species that used to come to southern England in the seventies and early eighties as a rare winter visitor, so rare that it attracted ardent bird watchers armed with binoculars and cameras. It didn’t appear in any significant numbers in Britain until 1989 and it wasn’t recorded as breeding here, until 1996.

At one time little egrets were common in western mainland Europe but they were hunted extensively for their beautiful white plumage, in particular for the two long delicate plumes on the nape of the neck that form a crest. A headdress of white feathers had been a requirement of formal court dress in Europe since the 18th century but then, disastrously for the little egret, white plumes became high fashion in the elaborate millinery of the 19th century.

[1] ..yellow feet to match its yellow eyes; [2] ..long distinctive plumes on its crest, back and chest.

A little egret’s plumage is at its best in the breeding season so hunters trapped, killed and skinned the adult birds at their nests, wiping out whole colonies and leaving the nestlings to die. Under such pressure, the species soon became locally extinct in north western Europe and very scarce in the south.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that conservation laws were introduced by Spain and France to protect what remained of the southern breeding colonies. Numbers then began to increase. After each breeding season, little egrets habitually disperse widely and this has contributed to a slow expansion of their range back into western and northern France. Crossing the channel to eventually colonise southern England and Ireland was just the next step. 

The recovery of the little egret shows us that we can use legislation to prevent the exploitation and destruction of our wildlife, that the almost terminal decline of a species can be reversed if enough people make enough noise.

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