Midsummer sees herons and egrets, among the earliest birds to nest in the spring, disperse across the country. As well as the Grey Herons and Little Egrets that breed in North Wales, recent years have seen more Great White Egrets spread into North Wales from June to September. There were four, perhaps as many as six, at RSPB Conwy on Thursday and two remained over the weekend. One bore a ring that showed it was a nestling at the RSPB’s Ham Wall nature reserve, Somerset, just a few weeks ago. Great White Egrets have bred in Britain for less than a decade, including on the Dee estuary since 2017. Another Great White at Porthmadog Cob was joined briefly by another three on Monday, their larger size compared to Little Egrets being evident in Elfyn Lewis’s photo.
Egrets have been recovering from centuries of wetland drainage and persecution. The long, wispy feathers that grow from the head were hugely popular in ladies fashion and for ceremonial military dress during the 19th century, leading to the killing of huge numbers of egrets. They nest in colonies so were easy targets and numbers quickly crashed as thousands of chicks were left to starve to death. Each dead Great White Egret yielded a quarter ounce of feathers, worth $7, equivalent to £166 today. Up to £20 million worth of birds’ feathers were traded through London each year, over £200 million at current prices, from all over the world. The trade, dubbed “murderous millinery” by campaigners in late Victorian England, contributed to the decline of many species and the extinction of several more, such as the unique Huia wattlebird in New Zealand that was regarded by Maori as sacred.
1 July 2021 is the centenary of the Plumage Act becoming law. It followed decades of campaigning by the RSPB, formed by a group of women in 1889 to push for just such a law. Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP, took up the cause following her 1919 election victory. The law banned imports of feathers, although it would take several amendments and a change in fashion for sales to cease. The story of the trade and these women is powerfully told by Tessa Boase in Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved The Birds, which I can thoroughly recommend. Whenever I see an egret, I think of those pioneering women.
Beside the Great White Egrets, other sightings this week include Hooded Crows on Bardsey and the River Clwyd, Roseate Tern at Cemlyn lagoon, Spotted Redshank at RSPB Conwy, and Quail singing at Aberffraw, Holt and Glaslyn.
There are just hours to go to order a copy of the new national avifauna, The Birds of Wales, at the pre-publication price of £25 (plus p&p). Click here for details and to order, using the code WALES50 to get the discount. The offer is valid until 30 June, after which it is published and will cost £45.