Great white egret no longer rare in the UK due to global warming?

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) tells me that the population of UK wintering great white egrets is 35. This means the number of individuals present from October to March. Today it is reported in the news media that Bird Guides a website monitoring sightings of rare birds, said that it had recorded 8,300 sightings of great white egrets last year of which 2,300 were first time birds to a specific location. I wonder whether the RSPB number is correct?

Great white egret

Great white egret. Drawing: PSPB.

The previous 10 years provides a similar story in the growth in numbers of the great white egret in the UK. In 2010 there were 1,085 sightings. They are now seen regularly in some areas and they represent about 10% of all bird sightings reported to Bird Guides in 2019.

A spokesperson for Bird Guides said that the repeat reports and high numbers indicated that they had become semi-permanent residents in the UK and they expected the numbers to rise and their presence to become commonplace. It could be said that they are no longer rare in the UK as they were once considered.

It appears that the distribution of birds such as the great white egret is expanding northwards in line with global warming to places where their habitat is warm enough to allow them to breed.

The European Breeding Bird Atlas reports that the ranges of Europe’s breeding birds have shifted north by 28 km since they carried out their first survey in late 1980s. This represents about 1 km every year.

Bird species once confined to the continent of Europe will be able to colonise the UK. The great white egret appears to have responded faster than other birds. Another egret, the western cattle egret, was reported 4,000 times in 2019. They were seen 870 times in new locations. Throughout 2016 there were 1,339 sightings. The little egret once confined to the Mediterranean has spread along the French coast into England. It is been in England for the past 20 years.

In addition to climate change, the great white egret’s expansion into East Anglia has been due to improvements in the wetland reserves there combined with a number of breeding programs in the interests of conservation carried out in The Netherlands.

Perhaps the most remarkable story is that of the cattle egret which bred for the first time in Norfolk this year. The egret is a heron and the great white egret is a large, white heron. They look similar to little egrets. Their feet are black and their beak is yellow. They are protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.


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