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How the heron ushered in the modern conservation movement

If you want to experience the breeding season at its most striking, a heron farm is the place to be. Northern Europe’s gray heron and its American cousin, the great blue heron, have wingspans of around 6 feet. Their nests are messy affairs. And their fluffy chicks resemble Muppet pterodactyls of a sort Jim Henson might have designed in a moment of anarchic genius.

The heron in my local park is not big. But mating pairs have still occupied all 11 nest sites in thickets on an island in the lake. There’s always something going on. Adults may be repeating courtship rituals that took place in full force in January, popping open their Cruella de Vil quiff and presenting gifts to their pals (“Darling! Other Branch? How considerate!”) Others are flown in to feed chicks, who immediately bother their parents with begging calls that sound like two shovels clinking together. Larger youngsters venture to nest edges to flap their wings.

Herons are milestones in the birth of modern conservation as well as natural entertainment. Notable women on both sides of the Atlantic launched the party with campaigns against the trade in wild bird plumage, particularly heron and egret feathers. Her starting point was that a hat with dead bird bits stuck to it was frankly inappropriate.

Her deeper message was that humans have a duty of care to nature, which precludes slaughtering wild animals for decoration or specimen collection. This view, widespread today, was radical at the time. At its peak, the feather trade was responsible for the deaths of about 200 million wild birds annually. “People thought nature was endless,” says Tessa Boase, whose Book about the conservationist with the great name Etta Lemon chronicles the early years of what became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Emily Williamson co-founded this in Manchester in 1889 after the British Ornithologists Union rejected her application for membership because she was female. His biggest publicity coup under the energetic Lemon was parading photos of a heron colony devastated by hunters on sandwich boards through London. With a membership of around 1 million, the RSPB is now the UK’s largest conservation organisation.

Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall separately formed the forerunner of America’s Audubon Society to pursue parallel goals in Boston in 1896. The name honors the pioneering ornithologist, his great tome The Birds of America beautifully displays the merchandise in question. These were the spectacular nesting swathes of birds such as the gray heron, great egret and snowy egret.

Climate change means heron species are moving north in the US and Europe, according to Jim Kushlan HeronConservation. Little Egrets have been nesting in the UK since 1996. They often build colonies in the same trees as herons, but further down. There are pros and cons. Herons’ sword-like beaks offer fearsome protection against nest predators such as crows and magpies. But even nesting herons rain down everything underneath with guano.

Herons now frequent some of the same garden ponds as herons – a clue for me to intrude into your private grief if you’ve ever stepped out of an aquarist shop upbeat, holding a bag of fancy goldfish. To your local herons, you were just the Uber Eats delivery driver.

These birds catch fish. They’ve had 55 million years of evolution to get good at it. As a peacemaker, I hoped my research would show that herons feed on wild fish much more than ornamental fish. But when I asked Lea Valley’s experienced ornithologist Paul Roper which prey startled chicks regurgitate when he rings them, he cheerfully replied, “These are mostly goldfish.”

Herons were a staple on the menu at Tudor royal banquets. Today, killing herons is illegal. Nevertheless, Tory MP Alan Clark described it in his shabby diaries and although he was a scoundrel it brought tears to his eyes. Keeping them away from garden ponds is difficult. They can poke their beaks through webs. They have been seen happily perched on plastic lures designed to scare them away.

But Rob Whitell from the British Koi Keepers Society tells me that its members complain very little about herons eating their expensive ornamental carp. “We eliminate weak points when we design a pond,” he says. Koi pools are often surrounded by low walls topped with acrylic panels that herons are wary of walking on. Erecting pergolas nearby makes it difficult for birds to land and take off.

Without recommending it, Whitell reports that nervous fish keepers can purchase a device designed to spray water on herons when they break a beam of light. I know if I installed one I would be the only organism in the garden he would ever spray.

In addition, the herons are welcome to the few remaining sticklebacks in my wild pond. I enjoy occasional early morning sightings of these prehistoric looking birds. They survived hungry Tudor royals. They survived Victorian milliners. They even survived Alan Clark MP. They will outlive our own generation if we heed the message of Williamson, Lemon, Hemenway and Hall.

Jonathan Guthrie is the head of Lex

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Adam Bradshaw

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