There were no egrets in Gloucestershire when I was a child. They are not part of the traditional or ancient fauna of the UK, although people do get them a bit muddled up with herons, storks and cranes. The egrets have simply extended their range, and have arrived of their own volition, claiming a niche along our waterways. They aren’t that numerous nor do they breed prolifically, so it’s not appeared to cause much trouble.
When I originally wrote Hunting the Egret, I had not actually seen an egret in person. I’d seen images online, and fallen entirely in love with them. My first egret encounter was on the Somerset coast, and made me cry. Moving back to Gloucestershire, I found the egrets had made it this far, as I had envisaged in the novel, so I came to the redraft able to add details from experience. Although it turned out I didn’t need to change much – I had them pretty much figured out.
White creatures tend to feature in myth and legend as guides to the otherworld. White stags and white hares are probably the most common, white horses, and white dogs also have definite faerie associations. There are lots of stories linking swans to magic as well. In nature, very few things are pristine white. There’s snow and milk, and naturally white creatures and birds. Before humans invented bleach and white paint, mostly we lived with earth shades. Brilliant whiteness didn’t feature much, your white robed Druid (imagining they did exist) would probably have been somewhat off-white, dependant on sun bleaching, and not able to access the kinds of chemicals we now soak our clothes in regularly. Whiteness was unusual, and therefore all the more startling.
Seeing an egret fly out of the mist in the strange light of early morning, is a magical experience. They have the brilliant, pristine whiteness that suggests they may be harbingers of the otherworld. The slow flap of their wings has a stately quality, and, like cranes and herons, they are very good at standing still; poised and majestic. Being water birds, they tend to live along the margins, in the places that are neither quite land, nor water, making them powerful personifications of liminal places. Seeing one perched in a tree is a tad surreal, but like herons, they do favour tree perches and nest on branches.
Being relative newcomers, there is no British mythology around egrets, and no stories to tap into. No Mrs Tiggywinkle or Fantastic Mr Fox equivalents. As a child I loved the tales that shamelessly personified animals and made them accessible to me – Wind in the Willows, Duncton Wood, Farthing Wood, Brambly Hedge, Beatrix Potter… No doubt in other countries there are stories about egrets, but I have none, and that adds to their mystery rather. They have come from another world (France, not Faerie as I understand it) and we have not characterised them with tales, as yet.