RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Elegant snowy egrets are now back in force

WHEN I arrived in Egypt as a young airman in 1954 one of the first birds I saw was a little egret.

There it was, fishing in the roadside ditch which was known as the Sweetwater Canal as we trundled south from Port Said on an Egyptian troop train.

I had just spent a fortnight in choppy seas out of Liverpool in the ancient troopship H.T. Lancashire which looked as though its rusty superstructure was held together by white paint. It had been a rough January crossing all the way to Gibraltar and I was a poor sailor.

But porpoises as well as a Russian submarine tracking our route had relieved the tedium, and then as we neared land I saw swallows and a pied kingfisher. But the egret was unbelievable.

As a schoolboy I had cut out a painting of one from a magazine and stuck into my exercise book together with a kookaburra and a kiwi, and a feather from a rhea in Whipsnade Zoo.

The elegant egret in purest white was in total contrast to the local people in the villages who spat at us or ran their fingers across their throats.

We never thought then about how they had once been a proud empire and that we were now the invaders.

I quickly forgot about them as another egret, this time a cattle egret with yellow beak rode along on the back of a cow.

The 1920s railway carriages were the same age as the troopship, it seemed, if not earlier. They were under contract from the MOD and the 500 servicemen and three women arrived in the sandy hovels of Ismailia five dusty and thirsty hours later.

It all came back to me 60 years later as I got off the train in Shoreham-by-sea, walked to the river, and saw a little egret in the water below me, just as if it was yesterday.

However, the locals were all very friendly this time, the tea in the roadside cafes was excellent, the weather was comfortable, and there was no longer any need to go to Egypt to see an egret.

I had been very lucky to see one there at all half a century ago. In the Nile Delta they were still struggling for existence.

Immense numbers of egrets had been slaughtered for decades in order to supply the fashion trade with ‘ospreys’ or ‘aigrettes’ as decorative plumes for military hats and women’s dress hats.

A million snowy egrets had been killed in Venezuela alone, while colonies were all but wiped out in India, the Volga, and North America as well. Queen Victoria led the campaign against this awful trade, and the RSPB eventually succeeded against serious opposition, to get the Board of Trade to sign The Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill in 1921.

Today these wonderful birds are back in force. Do go and see them in Shoreham-by-sea on the good old River Adur.