Vultures are in trouble. In India their numbers have crashed by some 75% and the cause of this appears to be drugs used to treat cattle but which prove lethal to the vultures which feed on their carcasses.

One of these, a drug called diclofenac, has been licensed to be manufactured and used in Spain. It is estimated that populations of vultures could crash if even one percent of the carcasses on which the vultures feed are contaminated with the drug.

Spain is the stronghold of vultures in Europe. We have black vultures, bearded vultures, griffon vultures and Egyptian vultures. To those of use fortunate enough to have seen them they are quite extraordinary and beautiful birds. The sightings I have had of griffon vultures have left an indelible impression. Once, in the national park in Montfragüe, I lowered my binoculars as soon as they had become entirely filled with the bulk of one of these great birds and then fell under its shadow as it glided over my head perhaps 20 feet up.

This story of the threat to Spanish Vultures was reported in a local paper, the Olive Press, and  it brought to mind a couple of things I had read in the past about vultures in India and Spain.

The story of the decline of Indian vultures, to which the authorities were very slow to react, was given in Tim Flannery´s excellent book “Here on Earth”. In the early years of our current century Indian vulture populations plummeted. Three species were struck: the Indian vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the white-rumped vulture. This last species was particularly hard hit. It was once the most abundant large bird of prey on earth. Now it is critically endangered. The cause of the decline was only discovered in 2006. It was anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac which was then being widely used on cattle and water buffalo. This is the drug which has now been approved for use here in Spain.

In interesting detail of the sad story of the vultures´ demise in India (their population crashed by 97% in 15 years) was the experience of one group of Indians, the Parsees. For many centuries it has been the custom of the Parsees to expose their dead on towers known, evocatively, as the towers of silence. These sites are visited by vultures which scavenge upon the corpses and, in keeping with the values of the Parsees, recycle the materials from which we are made. The crash in the numbers of vultures resulted in the towers no longer being visited, an experience which was deeply traumatising to the followers of this religion, and only now are there signs of their return.

The other interesting account of vultures, now closer to home, is a macabre tale related by Clive Finlayson in his lovely book Al-Andalus. Almost 100 years ago, in 1921, some forests were being cleared in eastern Andalucía in order to make way for railway tracks. During the course of this work a forester came across many buttons from military jackets of Spanish soldiers. These were found on the ground beneath the perches of griffon vultures. The buttons belonged to the Regulares, a regiment that was exclusively based in the Spanish colonies in North Africa and had been involved in a military disaster in July of the same year which cost the lives of between 14 and 16 thousand Spanish soldiers. The inescapable conclusion was that the vultures were in the habit of routinely flying across the Mediterranean to feed on the corpses of those fallen.

Vultures may not be everybody´s cup of tea, but they are iconic birds and play an invaluable role in the ecosystems in which they are found. I hope that the pressure put to bear on the Spanish government by the RSPB and Birdlife Europe and others will prevent a catastrophic error. The experiences in India and, increasingly in Africa, are well documented.

Ignorance is no excuse.

This is an Egyptian Vulture. In Europe the vast majority of these birds live in Spain, most in Andalucía.