Being in a landscape tends to stretch our conception of time. We feel, atop all that rock, walking between ancient trees, the brief span of our lives, our species. But landscape, too, is a mutable thing, and nature can move fast. In 2011, just outside the ancient town of Rye, a sluice gate was opened from the River Rother on to the fields along its western banks. These fields, which had been used to graze cattle, swiftly reverted to the salt marsh they had been before sea defences and drainage channels tamed them. Now they form the heart of Rye Harbour nature reserve, one of the country’s most important and beautiful wetland sites.
In Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, set in the late 19th century on a similar stretch of salt marsh, one of the characters sees an “egret waiting out the mist”. Had twitchers existed back then, they would have come running. Egrets were once common in the British Isles, but they were wiped out in the 18th century, victims of the feather trade. Until the late 1990s, they were a rare visitor from their continental homes. Then, in 1996, a pair of little egrets established themselves on Brownsea Island in Dorset. Since then, likely as a result of climate change, little egrets, followed by their cousins – cattle and great white egrets – have been arriving in greater numbers each year, with Rye Harbour one of their favoured destinations.
Over recent months, the reserve’s little egrets have taken up ownership of the channel around the sluice gate. When the fast-running tides bring the water rushing on to the marsh, up to a dozen are there, waiting, head-on to the tide. They are beautiful birds – black dagger bills, sleek plumage, impossibly white. They make the gulls around them look drab and grey.
As the first fish begin to flow through, the egrets become immediately more upright, alert and darting. Rowdily elbowing the herring gulls out the way, they scarf down sprats and minnows, dancing their black legs and yellow feet out of the water, standing firm in the blast of the current. They give the clear impression that they are here to stay.