There are two types of white egrets that have put in more of an appearance around the Dorset coastline and waterways over the last 30 years.
Whilst this may not be music to fishermen’s ears, the birds are a sight to behold, as can be seen from our photographs.
The little egret is a small, white heron that used to be a rare visitor from the Mediterranean, but is now a familiar sight. Often solitary, they are easy to spot against a muddy riverbank or on wetlands and the increasing numbers have possibly come about because of rising temperatures due to climate change. It is reported by Dorset Wildlife Trust that the little egret first bred in the UK on Brownsea Island in 1996.
In comparison, the great white egret is an enormous, dazzling white heron with a dagger-like beak that is bright yellow for most of the year, but generally black in breeding birds. It is almost the size of the grey heron with longer legs and a longer neck. Great white egrets are seen regularly in the UK but most frequently in the south-east of England and East Anglia. Several pairs now nest in the UK. They like wetland habitats and the first breeding pair was recorded on the Somerset Levels in 2012.
Compare Danny’s superb photographs of the little egret on the River Stour at Blandford with my photographs (not of the same quality) of the great white egret standing in one of the lakes at Moors Valley Country Park, near Verwood to see the difference between the two birds. It was a lucky shot to also get a grey heron in the same frame as the great white egret and as I don’t carry a professional camera with me when out walking, the photograph was never going to do the birds justice.
One difference that isn’t clear from the photographs in this feature is the colour of the birds’ feet. The great white egret has black feet whilst the little egret, as you will notice, has bright yellow feet.
Although the birds’ white feathers give them away, they are shy creatures and once they realise they’ve been spotted and could be in danger, will fly further down the river to find a quieter location to do their fishing. As well as fish they will take insects, small crustaceans, small mammals and frogs which they swallow whole.
White egrets were once persecuted for their wonderful neck plumage that heralds the breeding season. The birds were almost wiped out in the 1800s when their plumage became fashionable and was highly sought after in the United States. At one time, it was said the neck plumes of little egrets were more valuable than gold.
This didn’t go unnoticed by a passionate group of people known as the Disbury group who amalgamated with Fur and Feather meetings in Croydon to become The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 1891. The RSPB’s original raison d’etre was achieved in 1921 when the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed in time to save the birds from extinction. More birds gained protection with the Protection of Birds Act that followed in 1934 and 1954.
In 1981 the Wildlife and Countryside Act, given to us in part by the EU Birds Directive, came into being. All birds in England, Wales and Scotland including their nests and eggs, are protected by law, with certain exceptions, it is an offence to:
- Intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird.
- Intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built.
- Intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird.
- Have in one’s possession or control any wild bird, dead or alive, or any part of a wild bird, which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954.
- Have in one’s possession or control any egg or part of an egg which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954.
- Use traps or similar items to kill, injure or take wild birds.
- Have in one’s possession or control any bird of a species occurring on Schedule 4 of the Act unless registered, and in most cases ringed, in accordance with the Secretary of State’s regulations (see Schedules).
- Intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird listed on Schedule 1 while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of such a bird.
Perhaps it is all thanks to those persecuted birds in the late 1800s that we have such strict laws today.
A wild bird is defined under the Act as any bird of a species, which is resident in or is a visitor to the European Territory of any member state in a wild state. And so the egret is afforded all the protection it needs to establish itself in Dorset. Could these white birds that are making such a comeback along our riverbanks and in our water meadows be stark reminders of yet another piece of past history we cannot be proud of? They are certainly unmistakable in their plumage and poise.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act’s exceptions include game birds, which are covered by the Game Acts. Certain game birds are only fully protected during the close season.
Visit www.rspb.org.uk for the most noticeable exceptions to the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the schedules of protected birds. The penalty for disturbing or destroying one bird or nest can be an unlimited fine or up to six months in prison, or both. Crime should be reported to the police, and can also be reported through the RSPB website.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act was given to us in part by the EU Birds Directive and any attempts to reform the UK’s wildlife law now we have left the EU will have to be passed by the Houses of Parliament. The EU wildlife laws cannot be repealed without more parliament acts being passed.
The Wildlife and countryside Act 1981 can be found here https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/69
Please share post:
Follow us on