A double century for Bitterns

Published on 14 December 2011 in Main articles

A young Bittern, photographed in the Norfolk Broads in 1911 by Emma Turner

The year 2011 has been a double-century year for the Eurasian Bittern: not only did the number of booming males in England top 100, but it is exactly 100 years since the species was rediscovered breeding after a long absence from the country.

Bitterns were once widespread across Britain, sufficiently so that they featured not only in feasts of the rich but also in the Sunday dinners of at least some of those who lived among their marshland haunts. Centuries of drainage reduced the distribution of the species but the males’ far-carrying calls stayed familiar to everyone in the areas where extensive reedbeds remained well into the nineteenth century. But the rapid improvement of firearms spelt its doom and by 1843, even in its main stronghold of Norfolk, its numbers had declined substantially from those a few years before when ‘a party of fen shooters would kill 20 to 30 Bitterns in one morning. There was evidence of sporadic breeding in Norfolk until 1868 but then a gap for over 40 years, apart from a young bird handed in to a Norwich taxidermist in 1886. In 1903, the experienced Norfolk ornithologist Rev. Maurice Bird wrote: ‘Probably the Black Tern and Bittern will never again rear their young in Broadland’. Eight years later he was to be proved wrong.

Maurice Bird played a part in disproving his own opinion but the chief actors were Miss E. L. Turner and James Vincent. Meeting Richard Kearton in 1900, Emma Turner was inspired to follow his lead and take up bird photography. For the next quarter of a century she spent parts, at least, of most springs and summers (and two winters) living on her houseboat on the Norfolk Broads, developing her photographs in a tiny hut on an adjacent swampy island. Jim Vincent, keeper of the White Slea Lodge estate from 1909 until 1944, was renowned for his protection of rare birds alongside shooting management, his diaries (1980) providing a briefer account of the discovery. Both received Gold Medals – Turner from the Royal Photographic Society, Vincent from the RSPB.

Order your back issue, or subscribe today