The old gated roads between the medieval Foston church, Peatling Magna and Arnesby village are a favourite haunt of mine; most usually in Spring and Summer when our nationally declining Yellowhammer can still be observed chirping heartily atop the hedgerows in surprising abundance. At this time of year the lanes are quietened in their winter solitude but possess a just-as-welcome serenity. With the hedges now stripped bare of foliage, succumbed to the frosted fingertips of winter’s hand and her shift to shortened days and longer nights, secrets are revealed in the guise of open rolling hills, remnants of ancient field boundaries and the other-worldly skeletal remains of lightening-struck and hollowed Oaks dotted amongst buttercup meadows.
These lanes were not so quiet on Sunday lunchtime but instead were filled with the chatter and chuckling of a hundred or more Fieldfares. With each footstep the flock ascended from the Hawthorn hedgerow in unity, only to settle again thirty yards further along and once those thirty yards had passed underfoot, up they rose again and so, despite the lacking element of surprise, the cycle continued. The mature hedgerows, each interspersed with the odd full-grown tree, were as healthy as I’ve seen them and completely carpeted in ruby-red fruits; a luscious feast for the Fieldfares who decked in their finest duck egg blue, snow-white and jet-black speckled plumage provided quite the feats for our eager eyes.
Beyond the hedge lay a private boating pond belonging to the old manor house of Peatling, accessible on the other side via a way-marked section of the ‘Leicestershire Round’ footpath. To cross the now torrential beck which flanks the pond, having descended from higher ground near Arnesby village would have been a mistake. The pasture beyond the footbridge now nothing short of an extension of the man-made pool; merely the beginnings of the usual winter floods which despite the banks of the beck still holding firm is simply saturated to the point of no return by Saturdays heavy rain. From the dry tarmac of the gated road, in Spring and Summer it may come as a surprise that here even sits a pond, the cover of an Elder and Willow copse concealing the view, but in these months the copse is easily breached by the naked eye to reveal the picture-postcard silver waters and her wooded island.
It is through this shady copse that I see a ghost amongst the trees. Perched in a Willow on the island is a Little Egret. His angelic whiter-than-white plumage flashes across the eye like a lit magnesium fuse against the gloom of the thicket backdrop. I don’t need my binoculars (It’s a good job, as I’d left them at home) to make a positive ID – it would be rare to find such a brilliant white elsewhere in Britain’s animal kingdom. In fact, the Little Egret only landed on British silt in the late 1980’s. Bucking trends of declination and having expanded its range to north and western France in the preceding decades, this little Heron first crossed the channel en masse in 1989 and by 1996 we had the first breeding pair nestled down in Dorset. Looking back, it was on this very lane I first encountered Little Egret just three years ago. Further uphill towards Arnesby where the breadth of the beck is much wider, I stumbled upon a troop of three Egrets stood fishing on the banks. The sun was setting on a late summers evening and as I clumsily charged towards the hedge to take a closer look I spooked all three. They took off, rising so elegantly with slow, majestic wing-beats into a perfect crimson sky I could not but stand and stare in wonderment until they were mere specks on the horizon. It was such a poignant moment that I later wrote in my diary of angels ascending to heaven; the setting could not have been more idyllic, it was certainly a spiritual moment.
Three years ago it was significant for other reasons too. In Leicestershire, Little Egrets were scarce to say the least but such is the expansion of their range that we now have a number of resident breading pairs and Little Egrets are no longer an unfamiliar sight on any reasonably proportioned, healthy body of water around the county.
I’m surprised to see this beauty perched above the pond because it is a pool of small proportion, though I think it’s more because I’ve yet to see an Egret perched anywhere other than on the ground. Poised, motionless and shoulders hunched, his stiletto-blade bill jutting from the tree line and stood precariously on a branch his majesty somewhat now evades him. When I pass the same spot some twenty minutes later, he’s gone. I search the water’s edge but to no avail. The ghost amongst the trees has done what ghosts do best; vanished, ascended to the heavens.