Egrets are making themselves at home in southern England

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Little egrets, virtually unknown in Britain 50 years ago, have made themselves so much at home here that the number of birds in their main colony are doubling annually.

Little egrets, virtually unknown in Britain 50 years ago, have made themselves so much at home here that the number of birds in their main colony are doubling annually.

The first British nesting by a pair of these small, graceful, white herons was four years ago at the Brownsea Island nature reserve in Poole Harbour, Dorset. They raised three young. In 1997 five pairs reared 12 young there, then in 1998 there were up to eleven pairs, followed by over 20 last year. This summer the success story has been underlined by the presence of over 40 nests.

Kevin Cook of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, who co-wrote a paper in British Birds two years ago announcing the first successful nesting, said yesterday: "Our hopes that they would do well have so far been well fulfilled." His 1998 paper forecast: "If egrets are given adequate protection from disturbance, particularly during the breeding season, they are likely to flourish in southern England." Only 12 had been recorded in the whole of Britain and Ireland up to the early Fifties and to see these bogland beauties used to require a journey to Mediterranean regions.

But conservation measures in Europe and a warming climate led to northward expansion and since the early Seventies sightings in Britain increased so rapidly that it was no surprise when they eventually nested. Now the English population is spreading, with the Rare Breeding Birds Panel report, in the latest edition of British Birds, reporting nesting at another site in Dorset and three others in Cornwall, Hampshire and Somerset.

They are almost certainly nesting in other areas too; it was reported this weekend that breeding has occurred in Essex, with at least four young birds seen at a secret site. The increase has also led to a number of large overnight roosts. As many as 281 have assembled at Thorney Island in West Sussex over the past two years - with up to 979 at all roost sites.

Conservationists now hope spoonbills, another spectacular heron-like marshbird, will follow the little egret's lead, after the report's revelation that this species has nested in Britain for the first time in 300 years.

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