A short tale from the Pyrenees

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

A short tale from the Pyrenees

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Having driven the family for four hours through the Pyrenean mountains, it was perhaps no surprise that my daughter tumbled out of the car and promptly threw up on the entrance to La Rectoria.  We were late for our scheduled visit to see the vultures of the Muntanya d'Alinya, a large private estate in Catalonia.  It had seemed like the perfect way to fill 'turnaround Saturday' - the day when the world and his dog seemed to be on the move travelling to, from or between holiday homes.  

We arrived on the recommendation of a colleague in the hope of seeing the vultures get their weekly feed.  But our tardiness meant that the group had already departed and so we had to make a swift ascent up the hill to the viewing platform - the girl deciding that the best way up was on her Dad's back.

Before we reached the top, we looked up and saw about 200 vultures soaring above.  The guides had kindly delayed putting out the food so we could catch up, but it was clear that the vultures were ready.  We'd seen a couple of Griffon Vultures the previous week on the French side of the Pyrennees but seeing 200 hundred playing in the thermals was spectacular.

Once we'd reached the group, the guides gave the go-ahead for the food to be put out.  Within moments, the vultures descended to scavenge what they could.  Through our scopes we had a pretty good view of the magnificent creatures feed about 500 metres from where were standing.  Nearly all were the more common Griffon Vulture but we did manage to see a couple of Lammergeier.  And while we heard about (but didn't see) the success of the (absent) Black/Cinereous Vulture reintroduction programme and the migration route of the Egyptian Vulture, a flock of Bee-eaters were heard and then seen fly overhead.  

The vultures ate as much as they wanted, then gently flew past us before dispersing over the mountains.  It was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.  Once we had made our way back down the hill, we celebrated in the best way possible with a late and very long lunch.

The visit to the vultures was one of the highlights of a holiday which was spent mostly in hills full of colour with late summer flowers and when the sun allowed, clouds of butterflies.  

It was, of course, hugely restorative but the holiday inevitably provided references to what was going on back home...

...Vultures, like UK birds of prey, remain vulnerable to deliberate and accidental killing.  Pan-European action is required, for example, to end the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac in Europe.  At home, persecution continues which is why I was delighted to hear of the successful (if damp) Hen Harrier Day and was thrilled to hear that our Skydancer project had won a National Lottery award.  The heightened public profile must lead to action: a decent Hen Harrier Action Plan and the introduction of a licensing system for driven grouse shooting would be a good place to start.

...Bee-eaters are spectacular birds which brightened my holiday.   It was lovely to hear of the nesting success of the pair at the National Trust property on the Isle of Wight.  Species are on the move and we know that climate colonisers will preferentially choose protected areas so the need to 'protect the best' is as important as ever.

...reintroduction programmes (whether for Black Vulture in the Pyrenees or for White-tailed Eagle in Scotland) can successfully bring species back from the brink

...my girl is a better walker than passenger.  Something she will be reminded of when she returns to school next week.

  • That's a lot of meat being put out! Rather like red kites feeding stations in Mid Wales and back gardens in Buckinghamshire.

    Some interesting discussions to be had on diversionary feeding ahead in the UK. Or is it in this case, sacrificial feeding to keep vultures off those tiny hill lambs?

    Yours red in tooth etc

  • Nightjar - I agree that the value of tourism is often neglected but it was nice to do our bit in the shop, in the restaurant and paying for the guided viewing.  It was the Curry Commission post Foot and Mouth that reminded us of the value of tourism to the English rural economy.  Glad that Redkite is doing his bit propping up IoW and Peak District economies with his birding exploits...

  • Martin, what an incredible picture - and what an incredible example of what positive conservation action is achieving. We get occasional Griffon's over our house in Languedoc and they are spectacular - as, of course are White Tailed Eagle. What they have in common, and what I feel we should be shouting about as lot more, is that they are factors in where people like us and thousands of RSPB members decide to take our holidays - and the reality of places as far afield as Mull and Catalonia is that it is our tourist money probably more so than the discredited CAP that is keeping communities and their economies alive.

  • Took part in the Hen Harrier day and never stood in rain like it, but one was hardly aware of it as it was a tremendous sucess. Also went to see the bee-eaters on the I-o- Wight, another great success.

    It is so very important that the success of Hen Harrier day is built on so that the profile of this issue is maintained and enhanced. My suggestion for next year is a walk across a grouse moor on Hen Harrier day and then perhaps a lobby of MPs in about October