Spoonbills return to breed in the UK after 300 years

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Spoonbills, one of Europe's loveliest wading birds, have begun to breed in Britain again after an absence of more than 300 years, in the one of the best-kept wildlife secrets of the past decade.

Spoonbills, one of Europe's loveliest wading birds, have begun to breed in Britain again after an absence of more than 300 years, in the one of the best-kept wildlife secrets of the past decade.

The birds have nested at an undisclosed site in England every year since 1995 and first successfully produced young in 1998. They hatched chicks again last year and have attempted to do so this summer but are understood to have failed.

The location of the nests remains a closely guarded secret to protect the birds from law-breaking egg collectors.

The fact that the species, named after its large wooden-spoon-like bill, has resumed regular nesting has emerged since the Independent's report last month of a breeding attempt by a pair in south-west Scotland this summer. That pair, which were seen displaying and nest-building at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Mersehead reserve, near Dumfries, failed to produce any young.

Now, a new report by the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP) announces that a pair bred and reared two young in eastern England in the summer of 1998 - an event described by the panel's secretary, Malcolm Ogilvie, as "the undoubted highlight of the year".

The report, in the edition of the journal British Birds to be published this week, covers only 1998, but Dr Ogilvie confirmed that the pair successfully nested in the same spot last year. According to reliable sources, the pair returned a few months ago for a third attempt, but although eggs were laid the further effort ended in failure - possibly due to cold weather during the lengthy incubation period.

But this is seen as just a temporary setback in the re-colonisation of Britain by these pure- white wetland-dwellers, which have not bred in Britain since about 1668, when East Anglian birds, the last of a former population, were wiped out by hunting and land drainage.

Earlier evidence of their presence stems from records of birds eaten at banquets. One known colony during Henry VIII's reign was in trees by the Thames at Fulham in 1523, and birds certainly nested in Norfolk, Suffolk, Middlesex, Sussex and Pembrokeshire.

There are now thought to have been several breeding attempts in at least four British locations in the past five years. "This is something we have been expecting because of the increased occurrence of this species in Britain in recent summers, mainly in eastern and northern England," Dr Ogilvie said.

"With colonies just across the North Sea in Holland, young birds are coming here to prospect for new nest sites. It is very much hoped this will eventually result in this delightful species becoming firmly re-established."

The return of the spoonbill is part of a trend which could see other spectacular waterbirds moving here from Europe. Little egrets, small snow- white herons virtually unknown in Britain 50 years ago, have recently colonised England, breeding for the first time in Dorset in 1996. The cattle egret and great egret are expected to follow.

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