There’s an unwritten rule in newspaper journalism that any story about egrets must have one of two headlines. Either ‘no egrets’ if numbers are dropping or ‘egrets, we’ve had a few’ if they are booming. At the moment, fortunately, it’s the latter.
The little egret (egretta garzetta) can be seen as something of a trailblazer. The first only nested successfully in England as recently as 1997, on Brownsea Island in Dorset, and there are now up to 1,000 pairs in the country, according to the RSPB. They compete for food with herons and cormorants on the Thames and even have been known to venture into cities and towns.
What looks like its big brother, the enormous great white egret (ardea alba) was, last year, seen in so many places in Britain that the website Bird Guides — the twitchers’ bible — no longer classifies them as a rare species and only reports sightings in regions where they remain scarce. There is also a third type of egret, the visiting western cattle egret (bubulcus ibis), which first bred here in 2008 and is still comparatively rare.
The great white is tall, elegant and stunning. The size is what sets it apart — it is as large as a grey heron — but also it has a bright yellow beak while the little egret’s is black. Both have black legs although the little egret has shiny yellow feet, nicknamed ‘golden slippers’ among birdwatchers.
Egrets were once common in Britain but were wiped out by the end of the Middle Ages, probably in part because of the ‘Little Ice Age’, which began in roughly 1300 and lasted for 500 years.