‘It feels like a sign’: joy at rise in cattle egrets on wildlife-friendly UK farms

Almost as soon as Johnny Haimes took up regenerative farming – replacing arable fields with herb-rich pasture so cattle could graze outside all year round – a distinctive white bird appeared on his pasture.

Numbers of cattle egrets are booming in Britain, boosted by wildlife-friendly farming where cows are grazed on gentle rotations designed to improve soil quality and boost invertebrate populations.

The cattle egret evolved feeding alongside elephants and buffaloes on the African savannah and has become one of the most successful birds on the planet by following cattle, dodging between their feet and feasting on invertebrates exposed by the trampling of the cattle, and on insects that livestock flush into the air.

The birds colonised North America in the early 20th century and spread north through Italy and France in the 1980s. They first bred in Britain in 2008, on the Somerset Levels, but then there were no confirmed breeding attempts in the next nine years.

After this slow start, their numbers appear to be taking off: 35 pairs bred in 2020 across 11 sites in Somerset, Hampshire, Essex, Kent, Sussex, Norfolk and Northamptonshire. This winter, 25 egrets are gathering to feed on Haimes’s 500-acre farm near Plymouth, and there is a group of 30 on another regenerative farm nearby.

“The first year I outwintered my cattle, I saw one or two egrets, the next year a few more, and we have 25 egrets now from November until March,” Haimes said. “I see more starlings as well and quite a lot of wagtails, barn owls and more hares now. It feels like a sign that the soils are getting into better shape.”

Haimes is one of 25 farms in the south-west working with Farm Wilder, a not-for-profit group that sets standards for wildlife-friendly farms to boost biodiversity, selling pasture-fed beef direct to customers and to restaurants, catering companies and food producers such as Willy’s Pies and FieldGoods.

Luke Dale-Harris, of Farm Wilder, said: “Cattle egrets are a perfect symbol of ecosystem health on grasslands and it’s so exciting to see the speed at which they’ve returned on these regenerative farms, which have only recently moved from intensive arable to regenerative grazing systems.

“An increase in soil health has led to an increase in invertebrates and that brings in the cattle egrets. But the farms also have vast amounts of starlings feeding in the winter alongside fieldfares, redwings and pied wagtails – overwintering birds that feed on things from the ground. Where the cows are, there’s this explosion of wildlife. We are not seeing so many cattle egrets on conventional farmland in these areas – they just don’t seem to be there.”

Until 2018, Haimes’ farm was an intensive arable farm with some suckler cows, but when Haimes watched his topsoil being washed off a steep field by autumn rains because it was exposed after maize was harvested, he decided there must be a better way to farm.

He attended Groundswell, the influential regenerative farming festival, and then rapidly converted 200 acres of arable into herbal lays and moved to year-round outdoor cattle-rearing, “mob grazing” his Herefords and Angus cattle by moving them on to fresh grass every day.

“It’s so much nicer to farm regeneratively. You’re not fighting nature, you’re acting with nature,” he said.

The author and naturalist Stephen Moss said: “It’s good news that forward-thinking west country farmers are giving a helping hand to one of our latest colonists through regenerative farming. But while I love seeing these quirky birds, especially feeding alongside cattle as their name suggests, it’s important to realise that without the mild winters as a result of climate change, they would not be able to survive here all year round.”

Farm Wilder requires its farms to be managing or actively restoring key nature-rich habitat such as traditional species-rich grasslands, wood pasture on moorland-edge heaths where endangered species such as cuckoos are breeding.

Dale Harris said: “We work with farmers to develop environmental plans for farms and our standards require 100% pasture-fed beef. It’s a way of getting more money back into the hands of truly wildlife-friendly farmers and raising consumer awareness.”

Several of its Devon and Cornwall farms manage grassland for the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly as well, one of many wetland species which has been in steep decline in recent decades as wet pasture is drained and “improved”.