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UK wildlife first as purple herons breed successfully

25 June 2010

Gemma Butlin
Media Manager (Acting)

The first purple herons ever to breed successfully in the UK will be on view to visitors at the RSPB’s Dungeness Nature Reserve in Kent this weekend.

News of the chicks’ arrival comes just a day after the Government announced it was calling in the decision to allow Lydd Airport to expand its operations on the edge of the reserve.

Lydd Airport’s plans would see an extension of the runway and a huge increase in passenger numbers with the arrival of Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s. The RSPB fears disturbance to birds and the effect of increased pollution on the site’s unique mix of specialist lichens, plants and insects.

Shepway District Council controversially agreed the application against the recommendation of their own planning officials. It will now be looked at again at a Public Inquiry.

The value of Dungeness as a haven for wildlife has been underlined by the arrival of the purple herons.

Staff at the reserve have set up a ‘Date With Nature’ viewing station on the reserve’s Denge Marsh so members of the public can share the historic wildlife moment.

As this is the first time the UK has hosted a breeding pair of purple herons, the Society has also put in place a round-the-clock species protection team to give the birds the best chance possible of raising their young.

Bob Gomes, RSPB Dungeness Site Manager, said: “We are seeing more frequent changeovers at the nest, one bird returning from a feeding foray approximately every 3 hours, presumably to deliver food to the awaiting chicks.

“As this bird approaches the nest often with head and chin feathers raised, its partner normally rises from the nest, after a short greeting ceremony that involves much calling from within the reedbed and departs to nearby marshland. 

“It’s great to see.”

Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s Regional Director for South East England, said, “The arrival of these chicks is a timely reminder the Dungeness peninsula is one of the most important and sensitive wildlife habitats in the UK.

“When combined with considerable local opposition and the increasingly significant impacts on climate change, it seems only right that the airport expansion plans are given the fullest and most rigorous examination before being allowed to proceed. The RSPB has long maintained a Public Inquiry is the best and only way to do this.

 “In the meantime, there is considerable potential to promote the natural environment and attract more people to the area as visitors and tourists. The RSPB is keen to work with others across Romney Marsh and Dungeness to make the most of this potential.”

It is not yet known how many chicks have hatched and confirmation will only be possible when the young fledge in a few weeks time.


1.      The purple heron, closely related to the larger and widespread grey heron, can reach 90cm in height with a wingspan of up to a metre and a half. In Continental Europe the purple heron usually breeds in colonies in reedbeds and feeds in wetland areas on insects, reptiles and amphibians as well as other small animals. A migratory bird, the European population of purple herons spend the winter in Africa.

2.      Visitors to the Date With Nature should park near the Dungeness reserve Visitor Centre, from where there is a one-mile walk to the viewpoint at Denge Marsh. Binoculars and telescopes will be available at the viewpoint.

3.       Normal reserve entry fees apply (Adults £3, concessions £2, children £1, family ticket £6).

4.      Although Purple Herons have struggled in Europe over the last few decades, experts say the numbers of breeding purple herons are expected to increase in the UK in the years to come. They are high up on the list of birds expected to be seen setting up home in southern Britain as the changing climate pushes them further north. This highlights the importance of wildlife havens like Dungeness in providing space for species displaced by global warming.

5.      The purple herons are just one of many Dates With Nature happening across the UK this year. In all, 60 projects will show people birds like peregrine falcons, white-tailed eagle, puffin, chough, great-crested grebe and roosting starlings.

6.      To find out more about Dates With Nature visit

7.      There’s also plenty of other wildlife for people to enjoy when they visit Dungeness. Marsh Harriers (the first fledged youngster of the year was seen this week) and Hobbies are in flight and a Bittern can be heard booming regularly from the reedbeds. 

8.      The Dungeness area is the largest shingle site in Europe boasting a range of wetland habitats. Within it lies the RSPB’s 2,500-acre Dungeness reserve with more than 1,000 different plants, 170 lichen species and thousands of birds.

9.      The Queen’s Speech, which sets out the Coalition Government’s legislative programme including an Airport Economic Regulation Bill, states:

Having ruled out new runways in the South East, we will engage with all stakeholders in the sector to develop a new vision for a competitive aviation industry, supporting UK economic growth and designed within the constraint of the existing runway infrastructure.

More recently, the Government announced that would be setting up an Aviation Task Force with the specific remit of looking at how to make more of existing aviation infrastructure.