Our birdwatching has been limited this year, as a result of the Covid restrictions and our continuing caution in the face of this frightening pandemic. We’ve seen no rarities during our occasional birding forays, but one bird we have been pleased to meet up with is the Little Egret. When we started birdwatching over three decades ago these elegant members of the heron family were almost entirely absent from the UK, but they can now routinely be seen in many parts of the country. Their return is a conservation success story.
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Little Egrets were once present here in large numbers, but were wiped out by mankind’s greed. In 1465, for example, 1,000 egrets were served up at a banquet held to celebrate the enthronement of a new Archbishop of York. A century later they were becoming scarce and by the 19th century they’d all but disappeared.
Egrets in continental Europe fared little better, although here it was fashion rather than food that drove the decline. They had been a major component of the plume trade since at least the 17th century, but in the 19th century demand exploded for feathers, and other bird parts, to decorate the hats of wealthy upper- and middle-class women. We know, for example, that in the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London, while in 1887 one London dealer sold 2 million egret skins.
Seen from a modern perspective the wanton slaughter of any species to feed the vanity of shallow fashionistas is appalling. Fortunately, however, it also appalled some of the women at whom the plume trade was notionally directed, initiating a chain of events that led to the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Today the RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity.
One of the women determined to stop the slaughter was Emily Williamson (1855-1936). At first she appealed to the all-male British Ornithologists’ Union to take a stand, but when they ignored her letters she realised this was a problem that women themselves could solve.
In 1889 Emily invited a group of like-minded women to her home in Didsbury on the outskirts of Manchester, to discuss how to the stop the vile plumage trade. The meeting established the Plumage League. Its rules were simple, and to the point:
- ‘That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.’
- ‘That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food.‘
Two years later, in 1891, the Plumage League joined forces with the Fur and Feather League. This was also an all-female group and had been set up in the south of England by Eliza Phillips (1823-1916), who shared Emily’s values and aspirations.
Their new organisation was called the Society for the Protection Birds. Led by Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon (1860-1953), and with the Duchess of Portland Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck (1863-1954) as president, the Society grew rapidly. By 1893 it boasted 10,000 members. In 1904, just 13 years after it was founded, the Society received a Royal Charter from Edward VII, making it the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
One hundred years ago, on 1 July 1921, after nearly 30 years of campaigning by the Society, Parliament finally passed the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act. The Act banned the importation of exotic feathers, and thereby helped save many species from extinction.
Since then the RSPB has gone from strength to strength, campaigning to protect habitats and species both in the UK and across the globe. The RSPB’s nature reserves are also a valued resource for British birdwatchers, and Mrs P and I are proud supporters (Life Fellows, in fact) of this brilliant conservation organisation.
From small acorns do might oak trees grow, and Emily Williamson can never have imagined that her humble initiative in a Manchester suburb would have such profound consequences. She and her fellow founders of the Society were remarkable individuals, all the more so when we reflect on the degree to which women were marginalised in Victorian society.
Thankfully, Emily Williamson is finally starting to receive the recognition she deserves. In April 2023 a statue of Emily will be unveiled in Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park, close to her former home.
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Needless to say, Emily Williamson was not at the forefront of our minds when we spotted our Little Egrets a few weeks ago. I’m sure, however, that she would have been thrilled to see them back in the UK and fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
Little Egrets first returned to the UK in significant numbers in 1989. They arrived here naturally, following an expansion of their range into western and northern France during the previous decades. They first bred in 1996, in Dorset, and continue to thrive. There are now thought to be around 700 breeding pairs in the UK, while the over-wintering population is around 4,500 birds.
Little Egrets are handsome birds, and a welcome addition to any wetland habitat. It’s great to have them back here, where they belong.
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Postscript: This essay on The History Press website provides further details on women’s role in the foundation of the RSPB