Flown home on the winds of war

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The Independent Online
UNLIKELY as it may seem, there's one thing Britain can thank Hitler for - something bad-tempered and possessed of the most bizarre set of pincers you will see outside an operating theatre. Country folk call it the yarwhelp, science identifies it as Recurvirostra avosetta, but it is best known as the avocet, and 50 years ago this week it flew back to our shores after a century-long sulk on the continent.

Like all good yarns, the story of the bird's return begins in a village pub. One day in early April 1947, a certain Major Esmond Lyn Allen was drinking at The Eel's Foot Inn at Eastbridge, Suffolk, when he overheard two rustics chatting about how they'd seen "awl-bird" (as in the tool) that day at Minsmere, on the coast. Major Allen was amazed to find four avocets at Minsmere; the striking wading bird with the long legs and the long upturned bill was indeed back.

In the early 19th century, coastal marshes had been drained to provide farming land, so depriving the avocet of its natural habitat of freshwater, reed-ringed marshes. The birds took flight. In 1940, the land was once again flooded to prevent a possible landing by German troops. The Hun didn't come, but the avocets did.

Within days of the bird's reappearance, Col Sholto Ogilvie, whose family estate included Minsmere, leased 1,500 acres to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The avocet stayed on that season to breed, and began to appear at other sites on the Suffolk coast, protected by a small, dedicated platoon of ex-military men who referred to the rare black and white bird only by the code name "Zebra".

The avocets have been wildlife conservation's greatest success story in England, and in the Sixties the bird's distinctive profile was incorporated into the RSPB's logo. There are now up to five hundred pairs breeding at sites from Kent up to the Humber. Around 100 pairs are expected to nest at Minsmere, before wintering in the south of France.

Yet for all the goodwill felt towards it, the avocet remains one of our most aggressive residents. It is a fearless scrapper and has been known to attack large geese, swans, even foxes.