The Bearded Vulture in the Peak District – a doomed wanderer or an icon of the urgency for rewilding

I’ve just read my latest copy of British Birds where it is reported that the bearded vulture in the Peak District might be repatriated. It says that any intervention would be a last resort but the bird will be returned safely to its ‘home reintroduction area’. It’s not ringed, radio-tagged or marked so is not a freshly released bird from one of the reintroduction projects in the Alps, the Massif Central or Andalusia, so where in fact is its home? So the main question seemed to be about the authenticity of it being a wild bird, just like the one that visited the UK in May 2016. It’s matter of whether you can count it on your British life list, but that hasn’t discouraged the hundreds of birders that have ventured into the hills and enjoyed seeing it.

The bearded vulture has captivated birders in the Peak District (photo by Indy Kiemel Greene)

But why should it be repatriated if it’s a wild bird?  For such a long-distance wanderer it could find its own way back to wherever it came from if it is in good condition, has found enough food and decided it did not wish to stay.  So why is there not enough food, even though it follows other scavengers, such as buzzards and ravens, to the remains of a few dead sheep?  And if there were enough food, why not leave it in case another bearded vulture might turn up next May, and vultures might (again) breed in Britain? In fact, instead of repatriation why not bring in some others from mainland Europe to join it? For at some stage the very successful bearded vulture projects will mean the present range becomes full and young ones will have to find new breeding places. What a marvellous prospect.

Worldwide, vultures have had hard times. In India and Pakistan the common three vulture species crashed from millions to 20,000. The cause was poisoning through ingesting the veterinary drug, diclofenac, commonly used there to treat cattle. Research and conservation has stemmed the decline. Nearer home in southern Europe vultures suffered from the 1970s EU regulations requiring the removal of dead farm animals from open land, but fortunately sense prevailed and derogations allowed for ‘vulture feeding places’ or ‘restaurants’ to be established. The vultures bounced back but in Britain we don’t even see that there’s a problem here. The countryside is too tidy!

The problem is that modern humans have broken the ancient food chains whereby large scavengers cleaned up the dead in nature. Nowadays by law, except in exceptional circumstances, farmed livestock have to be collected and removed, while the large predators which killed wild deer, and left as much as they ate, are long gone. And life for carrion eaters, from vultures to burying beetles, is nearly made impossible. In my new book, Cottongrass Summer, I’ve written of the appalling impacts of removing biomass and bones from the environment. 

As a start, no carcasses should be removed from nature reserves or designated sites. Deer hunters must use copper bullets to prevent lead poisoning. And the establishment of ‘raptor feeding places’ should be extended from the successful red kite locations that have been so appreciated by birders. I’ve recommended that several ‘carrion restaurants’ should be set up on the south coast to attract white-tailed eagles, both the newly reintroduced ones and the increasing wintering birds from the mainland. Specially fenced enclosures of a couple of acres, to exclude dogs and foxes, where local farmers could leave dead livestock would be a boon for nature. It would start another process in essential rewilding.

In fact, a few enterprising farmers could set up eco-businesses where birders and photographers, in hides, could enjoy the close up spectacles of sea eagles, buzzards, ravens and even white storks. It works in Spain and Portugal. And then vultures cruising the coasts of France might see the thermalling carrion-eaters and cross the English Channel to investigate.  It’s not too far either, for vultures regularly cross the Strait of Gibraltar, while in November 2008 over a hundred griffon vultures flew a much greater over-sea journey from the Spanish mainland to the Balearic Islands, and some stayed to breed on Majorca. The Peak District bearded vulture is an icon of that rewilding future, so for goodness sake start a vulture feeding station immediately. It is a National Park and this should be a priority. To allow it to starve would be irresponsible.

The Peak District bearded vulture is the second to be recorded in the UK (photo by Indy Kiemel Greene)