Egret spotting at Poole Harbour in Dorset

Little egrets first bred in the UK at Brownsea Photo: Hans Germeraad/ AGAMI photo agency/Dreamtime.c

Little egrets first bred in the UK at Brownsea Photo: Hans Germeraad/ AGAMI photo agency/ - Credit: Archant

Little Egrets, Cattle Egrets and Great White Egrets are swapping their southern European habitats for Dorset’s balmy shores

Cattle egret are now seen in Poole Harbour Photo: Sandrastandbridge/

Cattle egret are now seen in Poole Harbour Photo: Sandrastandbridge/ - Credit: Archant

Conservation is a vast and complex subject, often with polarising views between what is right or wrong for a landscape. The actions of previous generations have created a void in this country’s ecosystems making the UK one of the most nature deleted countries in the world, according to a 2018 World Wildlife Foundation report.

The facts speak for themselves, with numbers in certain species such as farmland birds plummeting, it’s estimated that 30% of UK bird species are threatened with extinction. These are terrifying statistics that need addressing urgently, but there’s another dynamic that’s occurring where we’re also seeing population recoveries of species that were once widespread across much of southern Europe. These are now benefiting from a ‘safer’ haven in the warmer climes of southern Britain, including here in Dorset.

In the early 1980’s a small white heron was spotted in Poole Harbour. It turned out to be a Little Egret, an extremely rare bird from southern Europe. Over the next decade sightings became more frequent and, in 1996, the Little Egret bred for the first time in Britain on Brownsea Island. This was big news and over the next four years the colony grew to 46 pairs on Brownsea.

The Little Egrets’ history is a sad one. For several centuries, it was relentlessly hunted for its feathers and elaborate plumes, which were used in the fashion trade to trim hats and hair accessories. In fact it was this industry that prompted a group of campaigning ladies, headed by Emily Williamson to start the RSPB in 1889. After a lot of hard work and over a very long period of time, the persecution the Little Egret stopped and its populations finally began to recover.

Great white egret Photo© Shijianying/

Great white egret Photo© Shijianying/ - Credit: Archant

In the 21st century, climate change is also playing its role in ecological disruption for many species, but for the Little Egret it has aided their expansion into northern Europe and eventually into southern Britain. We’re now beginning to see exactly the same pattern occurring with two of the Little Egrets’ closest relatives, the Cattle Egret and the Great White Egret.

If you had said to me, five years ago that both Cattle Egret and Great White Egret would become regular over-wintering species in the harbour I wouldn’t have believed it. However, with breeding populations of both these species now established on the Somerset Levels over the last few years, we regularly see these stunning white herons at several sites around the harbour. There was a flock of 20 over-wintering Cattle Egret during 2017/18 winter period around Holme Lane, and there are usually two or three Great White Egret now present each winter in the Brands Bay/Littlesea area. I have no doubt that over the next couple of years these will also be breeding here, which will certainly provide a Mediterranean vibe to the Costa del Dorset!

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Birdwatching cruises around Poole Harbour

13 November: Low Tide Cruise (1- 4pm)

15 & 29 November: Wareham Channel & Harbour Cruise (9am - 12.30pm)

Ringing birds demonstations

4 & 18 November: Sunnyside Winter Ringing Demo (7.30 - 9.30pm)

Birds of Poole Harbour ID courses

11- 12 November: Winter Waders of Poole Harbour, 2-day course

To book on any of these event click here or call 01202 641003

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