Return of the vulture to the French Pyrenees

Once there were just 20 pairs of vultures in the French Pyrenees. Now they are thriving and, farmers claim, preying on live animals. John Lichfield reports
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The Independent Online

Vultures have a poor reputation. At the Falaise aux Vautours (Cliff of Vultures) in the small village of Aste-Béon in the western Pyrenees, they are trying to change all that. In the souvenir shop, you can buy cuddly, stuffed vultures and great, flapping, vulture mobiles. In the auditorium, Laurence, the presenter, says in a mock-spooky voice: "Welcome, children, to the world of the vulture".

Vultures have a poor reputation. At the Falaise aux Vautours (Cliff of Vultures) in the small village of Aste-Béon in the western Pyrenees, they are trying to change all that. In the souvenir shop, you can buy cuddly, stuffed vultures and great, flapping, vulture mobiles. In the auditorium, Laurence, the presenter, says in a mock-spooky voice: "Welcome, children, to the world of the vulture".

She manipulates by remote control a closed-circuit television camera, which is stationed 1,000ft up on the cliffs nearby. A live image fills the screen: an adult vulture on her nest, looking like an ill-tempered old lady in a black dress, wearing a white scarf.

More shifts of the robot camera show the audience other vultures wheeling beside the cliffs, their great, broad, ragged wings outstretched. A sweet, not-so-little, baby vulture sticks its head out of a cleft in the rock, demanding food.

Food is, of course, the source of vulture's poor reputation; that, together with the bird's deplorable looks and its close association with death. Groucho Marx once said: "I eat like a vulture. Unfortunately, the resemblance does not end there."

In the excellent visitor centre at the "cliff of vultures", an explanatory panel says, reassuringly: "Vultures are innocuous. They have become carrion eaters after thousands of years of evolution. Unlike other raptors, they are not adapted to killing their prey."

Some - not all - farmers, shepherds and hunters in other parts of the French Pyrenees angrily dispute that. They say that the numbers of vultures on the French side of the Franco-Spanish frontier has so rapidly increased in recent years - 20 resident pairs in 1972, 500 pairs today - that the huge, lugubrious birds have started attacking sheep, cows and even horses.

In other words, they say, vultures are no longer "eating like vultures". They are no longer confining themselves to long-dead meat, as decent vultures should. They are attacking live prey.

Noël Fourtine, a cattle farmer and mayor of the village of Esterre in the Hautes-Pyrénées, recalls an attack on his land, at the foot of the precipitous and magically beautiful Col du Tourmalet, a place much used for mountain stages of the Tour de France.

"My aunt saw them first. She said that it was like a whole crowd of giant umbrellas passing over the house. A neighbour phoned me and by the time I arrived there were scores of vultures, 60, 80, I don't know how many, surrounding a cow that was calving over by those trees.

"They were going for the placenta, even before it had left the cow. They were also going for the calf, clustering around aggressively."

On that occasion, the presence of humans scared the vultures away and both cow and calf survived. There have been scores of other reported incidents in recent years, including accounts of vultures attacking lambs or foals. On one occasion last year, tourists reported seeing a crowd of vultures attacking a calving cow and killing the cow.

Many - although not all - of these reports have been disproved, disputed, or minimised by naturalists, wardens of the Pyrenean National Park and even by other farmers. Vultures, they say, are simply not equipped to attack other creatures before they are dead. Their legs are strictly for standing on; they have no talons. Their cruel-looking beaks are adapted for pecking at soft, rotting meat or entrails, not for killing living creatures.

Nonetheless, a group of farmers, led by M. Fourtine, insists that there has been a "clear change in the behaviour of vultures. They are no longer scared of humans. They will come right down into the fields and beside houses. On another occasion, I found half a dozen vultures on a manure heap beside a cow shed, eating a placenta that I had thrown away a few hours before."

The allegations of the new-found rapacity of the Pyrenean vulture is part of a pattern of increasingly ill-tempered warfare in the French Alps and Pyrenees, between mountain farmers and resurgent wildlife and its defenders. As agriculture recedes, and individual farms become bigger, and more mountainous country returns to semi-wilderness, battles which were fought and won by humans a century ago are being fought all over again.

In the Alps, wolves, hunted to extinction in France by the 1920s, have emigrated from Italy since 1992 and spread in a dozen separate packs containing up to 60 animals in total as far north and west as the Vercors mountains, beside Valence in the Rhône valley. More than 2,800 sheep were killed by wolves in France in 2002; somewhat fewer last year.

Under pressure from farmers, the French government decided last week to invoke a loophole - or perhaps in this case a loup-hole - in the Berne convention which forbids the killing of all threatened species in Europe, including wolves.

Four individual wolves, believed to have been responsible for scores of sheep killings, are to be officially hunted down and shot. In return, farmers are expected, with some subsidies, to create better anti-wolf defences, such as guard dogs, fences and extra shepherds.

Alpine farmers are furious. They wanted the right to shoot wolves on sight: in other words, to hunt them to extinction a second time.

In the Pyrenees, there have been farmers' protests, bordering on violence, since 1996 when brown bears were re-introduced from Slovakia to supplement the ageing and shrinking native population.

The bears are accused, like the wolves, of killing sheep, including up to 200 ewes in one attack reported recently in the Hautes-Pyrénées.

Naturalists are sceptical about many of these claims. They are made doubly sceptical by the fact that the principal leaders of the anti-bear campaign in the central Pyrenees are also the most vociferous critics of the vultures. They accuse M. Fourtine and others of exaggerating the vulture problem to open a kind of second front against the bears.

M. Fourtine, a youthful, handsome 60-year-old, and excellent advertisement for the mountain life, dismisses these allegations. "They say that most of the bear attacks are the work of wild dogs. But we have never seen wild dogs here. We have seen the bears. One was disturbed close to a house, right down in the valley, only today. I have made a formal complaint, as mayor, on the grounds that public safety is under threat," he says.

"These people, the ecologists, also say that the vulture problem is exaggerated. It is certainly not as serious yet as the bear problem, but why should we have to wait until they are out of control? The people of France have to decide. Government has to decide. Do they want farmers in the mountains? Or do they want a wild animal reserve? We're not asking for the vultures to be eliminated. They perform a useful function, eating the carcasses of dead animals. But they have become too numerous. Vultures are like ecologists. You need a few but not too many."

Frequent visitors to France - even many French people - may be surprised to learn that the country has a large population of vultures. The vautour fauve, literally "bald vulture", usually called the griffon vulture in English ( Gyps fulvus), has lived in France for many centuries. It used to be found in the Alps and Massif Central, as well as the Pyrenees. It remains common right across Spain.

The griffon vulture stands three feet high and has a wing span of nine to 10 feet - comfortably larger than the largest European eagles. It lives, and hunts, in packs. Individuals can patrol an area of mountains 100 miles across, spotting objects as small as 10 inches long from two miles away.

By circling movements and sounds, vultures communicate their observations to fellow birds, rapidly attracting a large flock to a promising piece of carrion. In decades gone by, they lived on the remains of large farm animals and wild animals which had died in the high mountain pastures. By the early 1970s, their resident numbers in France had fallen to 20 couples in the western part of the Pyrenees - seven of them living on the Falaise aux Vautours. The population had been reduced by shooting, egg-collecting and by farmers' habit of leaving poison for foxes and other "vermin", whose rotting carcasses then poisoned the vultures.

From the mid-1970s, new rules were imposed, banning poisons and the hunting of vultures. Reserves were created, including the "vulture cliff" at Aste-Béon to allow the huge birds to breed in peace. Their numbers soared.

The aggrieved farmers point angrily at the conservation work at the "vulture cliff" - which now has 120 pairs and a score or so of hangers-on - and complain that the birds have been fed "fresh meat" and made too comfortable in the presence of humans. The balance of nature has been altered, they say. The man responsible for the visitor centre at the Falaise aux Vautours, with closed-circuit cameras showing birds to enthralled tourists, is Augustin Medevielle, 56, the mayor of Aste-Béon. Although a local man, and the son of a shepherd, he dismisses the reports of frequent vulture attacks on live animals as "absurd" and "impossible".

"I am going to be very rude," he says. "I have worked with vultures since I was 10 years old. I have observed how they live. These people know nothing about vultures, just as they know nothing about bears.

"There is a hysteria which has been encouraged by a couple of mayors in the Hautes-Pyrénées, who have made a political success of campaigning against bears and now they are trying to extend that success with vultures.

"They say we feed the vultures 'fresh meat'. First of all, we have not fed the vultures for many years, We don't need to. Second, vultures will not eat fresh meat. If an animal dies on the mountains, they will not touch the carcass for three, four days, even more. That is the way, they are programmed.

"The only exception is the placenta from a birthing cow or sheep. It's true that vultures adore that. It's like cake to them. It may be true that there have been one or two incidents in which vultures have been a little to eager to get at a placenta. But we've had reports from farmers who claim that they have found animals clawed to death by vultures. Clawed with what? Vultures haven't got claws. It is the same with the bears. We know, because we are tracking him, that the bear roaming over there in the Hautes-Pyrénées is the oldest of our native bears. We call him Papillon [Butterfly]. They say he has been attacking sheep, killing scores of sheep. I tell you, it's impossible. He's hardly got any teeth left. He may club to death the occasional lamb but scores of ewes? Never."

M. Medevielle is president of a study group appointed by the département of the Pyrénées Atlantiques to examine reports of vulture attacks. All but a "tiny, marginal number ... virtually accidents" do not stand up to investigation, he says.

Christian Arthur, the man responsible for wildlife in the Pyrenees National Park, has also conducted an investigation. He dismisses reports of attacks on strong, healthy animals but says that there are at least 10 well-documented cases of vultures flocking around a birthing cow.

"Herds have grown bigger and farmers cannot look after all of them all the time," he says. "Since cows now calve in August or September, right in the middle of the meadows, instead of springtime near the farm, they are more exposed than before.

"The problem is that the vultures do not always wait for the placenta to be ejected and, by being aggressive, trying to get at the placenta before it falls, they can endanger the life of the cow or the calf." This does not amount to the sinister change in the lifestyle of vultures which the farmers allege, he says. Farming practices have changed; vulture numbers have increased. That is all.

Robert Sagnes, 68, president of the association of hunters in the Luz-St-Sauveur area of the Hautes-Pyrénées, says that the official view is "naive". He filmed a vulture "attack" on a birthing cow last year. "I have lived here all my life and I've seen nothing like it before," he says. "There were maybe 100 vultures attacking the cow, and harassing the calf. If the rest of the herd had not answered the terrible lowing of the cow, and come to their assistance, both mother and calf could have been killed. Whatever the experts may say, even if these are isolated incidents, there has been a clear change in the behaviour of vultures. They are more aggressive, more ready to come close to human habitation, not just prepared to wait for animals to die. They want to help the process along. Their numbers have been encouraged to grow and we are paying the penalty."

The Pyrenean vulture wars have their absurd side. Some of the arguments seem to be driven by local jealousies between départements (counties) and valleys, as much as real issues of tooth and claw. How dare one valley encourage vultures, for environmental and touristic reasons, when the birds are, allegedly, harassing other people's cattle on the other side of the mountains?

At the same time, the vulture and bear wars in the Pyrenees - and the wolf wars in the Alps - raise a wider issue of principle which goes beyond the borders of France.

As agricultural patterns change, the large predators and raptors that we exterminated 100 years ago are making a comeback. Farmers and farm animals live alongside such creatures in many countries, including Italy and Spain. Can - will - French, and other, farmers learn to do the same?

FACT FILE: VULTURES AND THE PYRENEES

The Griffon vulture is a light sandy-brown, 15lb bird with an 8ft wing span and a distinctive neck ruff. It is long-lived - about 40 years - and it is thought that pairs mate for life.

In the village of Aste-Béon, a video show in the Falaise aux Vautours (Cliff of the Vultures) observation centre allows you to witness the everyday routine of these birds of prey thanks to cameras set up on the site. More information is available on the Pyrenees National Park website.

Larger wild animals found in the Pyrenees National Park include wolf, bear, lynx, wild boar, red deer and Pyrenean chamois. The Alpine marmot, a rodent which faced extinction in the region, has also been successfully reintroduced.

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