The little egret is an elegant medium sized heron with brilliant-white plumage, distinctive long black legs with yellow feet, a slender rapier-like black bill and attractive plumes on its head and neck during the breeding season. Their name comes from the Provencal word aigrette meaning ‘little heron’. They eat a wide variety of animals including small fish, frogs, snails and insects as they forage in wetland habitats, shuffling their feet to disturb small fish and they can also often be seen standing motionless at the water’s edge as they wait for prey.
The bird was, in the relatively recent past, a rare visitor to this country but thankfully is now a common site and is seen frequently along the Wye and Backstream. Historical records show that the little egret (Egretta garzetta) was once common in Britain and Ireland but became extinct in both islands mainly as a result of over-hunting - the plumes of the little egret and other egrets were in demand for decorating hats. This fashion was especially popular in the late 1800s with statistics showing that in the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London. Another record from 1887 shows that one London dealer alone sold two million egret skins.
This over-hunting reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels across Europe and was one of the main motivations used by a small group of women in Britain for establishing the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 1889, founded primarily to end the use of bird skins and feathers in the fashion industry.
By the 1950s the little egret had become restricted to southern Europe but the introduction of conservation laws helped the species recover strongly: in 1996, after a natural expansion of its range through western and northern France, the little egret bred in Dorset and has been northwards ever since. There are now about 1000 pairs nesting in Britain (over 20 have been seen in a roost in Wycombe) and recently they have been joined by their much larger and equally elegant cousin, the great white egret which has also been recorded in Bucks.