Eastern Daily Press: Cattle egret with steerThe arrival of white herons in Norfolk is a pleasure to see, but also a warning to heed, says Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer Robert Morgan

When a new acquaintance discovers that I work in wildlife conservation, it normally solicits the response: "that must be a great job?" 

I have several replies depending on the time of year and the task I’m currently under-taking.

The next question is often: "I’ve seen this odd bird, what could it be?" 

After going through its size, colour – and when and where it was seen, I try to satisfy the enquirer with a name (it normally turns out to be a chaffinch).

Eastern Daily Press: Great white egret taking off at NWT Holme Dunes

However, in the last few years I have been presented with a new question – "I’ve seen this large white bird….?"  

It is a good question, because the answer could be one of several species, but it could also involve an in-depth explanation on the impact of climate change, the state of the UK’s conservation work and our relationship in terms of wildlife recovery with other neighbouring nation’s efforts.

Once we have established it is not a swan, the first obstacle to answering the question is that some people refer to the familiar grey heron as a stork or crane.

Once this hurdle has been cleared, and I’ve established what a heron is, we now have three possibilities: little egret, cattle egret or great egret.

In addition, the spoonbill can be thrown into the mix, although it is taxonomically allied to ibis.  The most regularly seen and most common white heron is the little egret.

Around half the size of a grey heron, almost all suitable wetland sites in England have at least one little egret prowling around looking for fish, frogs or any other small, tasty creature to devour. Pure white with a dark bill, it is slim and elegant, with bright yellow feet that contrast sharply with their black legs.

The little egret, once a bird of the Mediterranean, has spread during the last few decades along the French coast and into England, where it has proved itself as a permanent avian fixture.

Eastern Daily Press: Little egret NWT Cley

The great egret is also pure white but much larger, the size of a grey heron but with an even longer neck, which like other herons and egrets is tucked in during flight.

Its large dagger-like bill is normally yellow, but changes to black prior to breeding, an event that is seen more often in Norfolk now.

Due to habitat loss across western Europe, it has become fragmented in range and nowhere particularly common.

The expansion of the great egret into East Anglia has been, in no small part, due to the astonishing and often ground-breaking work carried out by conservation bodies in the Netherlands.

However, further expansion has been made possible by the improvement and extension of our own wetland reserves and proves that European wildlife recovery will always require a cross-border approach.

Egrets previously suffered persecution for their plumage, and at one time their feathers were considered more valuable than gold!

It is a joy to see that they are increasing in number, and their appearance in the UK is, in part, due to a growing European population.

However, habitat loss, more frequent persistent droughts in Spain and Southern France, coupled with poorly regulated agricultural water abstraction in the Mediterranean wetlands (particularly for meeting our desire for out-of-season soft fruits and vegetables) has also proved a contributing factor for their shift north.   

The most significant white heron milestone and some may argue the most worrying, is the addition of cattle egret.

The cattle egret is a small stout heron that develops an orange crest and chest feathers during breeding, which it did successfully in Norfolk for the first time in 2022.

It is yet another Mediterranean bird that is undertaking a northward expansion. A colleague had a rather unexpected ‘egret surprise’, finding twenty-two cattle egret at roost in the fields in front of NWT’s Hickling Broad’s raptor watch-point at Stubb Mill.

This is a significant discovery and another avian indictor of climate change.

One of our long-standing volunteers grew up in Kenya and recalls seeing cattle egret riding on the backs of water buffalo and hippopotamus.

Eastern Daily Press: Cattle egret

Fifty years on, he is growing accustomed to seeing them hunting for insects amongst the hooves of cud-chewing cows on the banks of the river Thurne.     

There is of course one other bird that my questioner may see in Norfolk, and it easily falls into being both an odd bird and white.

The spoonbill has made a remarkable and welcomed return to the British breeding bird list.

It is creamy white, although adult breeding birds have a yellowish breast.

They are quite large with lengthy black legs and an unmistakeable bill that is long with a spatula-shaped yellow tip.

The spoonbill formerly bred in Norfolk, with a 17th century record of a colony near Norwich holding over fifty birds.

It spent the following centuries as a rare visitor, normally ending its stay in a taxidermist’s glass case. For the last ten years they have bred at a regular site in North Norfolk and last year they returned as a breeding bird to the Norfolk Broads, with several pairs raising young at NWT Hickling Broad.

As well as spoonbill it is possible to see an impressive array of wetland birds at this reserve, and with luck, all three of our newly arrived white herons too.    

The work to improve and expand the wetland habitats at NWT Hickling Broad, and elsewhere, proves that if we build it, they will come, and it is now proving essential for many species that are being displaced by environmental pressures and a rapidly changing  climate.