The Little Egret: Our Part in its Downfall
On my way to Mass yesterday at Dunnes stores, Cornelscourt, I was walking through the Marlfield estate in Cabinteely when a largish white bird flew close overhead, black legs and yellow feet stretched out behind. It was a Little Egret, a kind of heron which was common in these islands during the Middle Ages, but became almost extinct until the late 20th century. Of which more anon.
You might well ask what the decline of the Little Egret has to do with my last blog entry in which I speculated that my mother’s family may have been descended from a 10th-century Viking warlord called Rollo? Quite a lot, as you will see..
The family tree kindly sent by my cousin Malcolm indicates that after four centuries a family called Neville were descended through the line of Rollo. They became Earls of Westmoreland, and I discovered that one younger son, George, was made Archbishop of York. After his enthronement in 1465, in a series of feasts the 2,500 guests consumed 4,000 pigeons and 4,000 crays, 2,000 chickens, 204 cranes, 104 peacocks, 100 dozen quails, 400 swans, 400 herons, 113 oxen, six wild bulls, 608 pikes and bream, 12 porpoises and seals, 1,000 sheep, 304 calves, 2,000 pigs, 1,000 capons, 400 plovers, 200 dozen ruffs, 4,000 mallard and teals, 204 kids, 204 bitterns, 200 pheasants, 500 partridges, 400 woodcocks, 100 curlews, over 500 stags, bucks and roes—and 1,000 little egrets. They also had 1,500 hot venison pies, 4,000 dishes of jelly, 4,000 baked tarts, 2,000 hot custards with a proportionate quantity of bread, sugared delicacies and cakes, and 300 tuns of ale and 100 tuns of wine. So you will see 1) that the Nevilles were a formidably wealthy family and 2) there must have been quite a lot of egrets in Northern England at that time. There were much fewer by the mid-16th century, when William Gowreley, “yeoman purveyor to the Kinges mowthe”, “had to send further south” for egrets.
The decline in numbers set in throughout Europe as the plumes of the little egret were in demand for decorating hats. By the 19th century this became a major craze and the number of egret skins passing through dealers reached into the millions. Egret farms were set up where the birds could be plucked without being killed but most of the supply was obtained by hunting, which reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels and stimulated the establishment of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889.
My copy of T.A. Coward’s The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, published early in the 20th century, describes it as an occasional visitor. In Ireland as well as Britain, I am glad to say, the egret population has increased rapidly in the last 20 years, and it now breeds in most Irish counties. So this is a complicated story with a happy ending.