The silly season is hardly upon us and we have already had not one but an impressive three fearsome, flesh-eating creatures in the news guaranteed to put thousands of holidaymakers off their swims and country walks.
There was that great white shark spotted off the beaches of Cornwall – a hardy perennial of the imaginary kind which turned out to be, predictably enough, either a shark of the gentler, basking variety, or the product of one too many pints of Cornish ale in a St Ives pub.
Then we had a photograph which appeared to show a (new) beast of Dartmoor, shoulders hunkered, lurking and prowling menacingly near a group of schoolchildren gathered on a tor.
Various theories were expounded – a wolverine perhaps? Or a black bear. Maybe an escaped puma. Er, no. Actually, the ‘beast’ of Dartmoor turned out to be a Newfoundland dog out on a walk.
Now we have yet another terrifying creature to contend with – farther afield perhaps, but within the holiday radius of millions of Britons – the mutant man-eating vulture.
To be fair, nobody has actually said huge flocks of griffon vultures are ripping the flesh off terrified hillwalkers, but there is fear in the air in the rugged mountains of southern France and Spain.
One Pyrenean son of the soil spoke of the terror when a pensioner collapsed and died on a walk. A Hitchcockian scene ensued as vultures gathered.
Could the unthinkable be about to happen? Fortunately not. There was much flapping and shouting, and the birds went away.
In the French news weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, there has been dark talk of ‘mutant vultures’, one woman saying that a group of the birds, whose wingspans can exceed seven feet, gathered menacingly near to where her children were sitting.
One farmer, Alain Larralde, said he saw a group of vultures attack and start eating an adult cow. There have been reports of live animals carried off. “You can’t imagine what it is like to see an animal eaten alive,” Mr Larralde was reported to have said.
Over the past few months, there have been 42 claims for compensation from farmers who say they have had livestock taken by the birds. Last year, there were 33.
So what is going on? Can these birds, which have evolved to eat carrion and not tackle live prey, have changed their habits to the extent that they now prove a threat to Man?
In fact, there is a fascinating mix of truth and fiction in this yarn. Something odd is going on in Europe’s vultures, as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ European bird of prey expert, Grahame Madge, acknowledges.
“We are seeing three-figure vulture flocks over Belgium and Holland. These birds are fanning out across Europe in search of food,” he says. There are some 42,000 of the birds resident in southern Europe, and they appear to be heading this way.
Ornithologists are worried about the vultures – but not because they are attacking people. “There is a conservation issue here,” Mr Madge says. As usual, it seems, the threat is not from the animal to us, but the other way round.
For centuries, the Pyrenean farmers of Spain lived in symbiotic harmony with Gyps fulvus, the magnificent griffon vulture. Wheeling over their flocks and fields, the birds were seen as neither a threat nor even a nuisance, but as a vital part of the ecosystem.
For when farmers had to dispose of an animal carcass, they simply took it to one of the hundreds of “maladares”, carcass dumps, scattered across the mountains. There, the vultures would gather to do their work. It was a system that benefited both man and bird.
But, prompted largely by the BSE crisis in the late Nineties, the eurocrats of Brussels decided to ban this age-old system. This has caused a crisis for the vultures, which are flying to new areas in search of food.
So far, they have got as far as northern mainland Europe – indeed, as far as Finland. It is unlikely they will come here, says Grahame Madge, as they hate flying over large bodies of water.
Nevertheless, the fact that they have been seen in Finland, which would almost certainly have involved the crossing of the Baltic Sea, shows that a British sighting may be only a matter of time.
Vultures have been mercilessly persecuted over the years, like all birds of prey – but not everyone dislikes these devourers of rotting flash.
In India, the Zoroastrian Parsee community of Bombay famously relies on vultures to dispose of its dead. The remains of the deceased are left on high wooden structures, the Towers of Silence, for the birds to scavenge.
According to the Parsees, this satisfies their religious demand that the elements of earth, fire and water are not contaminated by the dead (which would happen during burial or cremation).
But there has been a crisis in India’s vulture population. In just 15 years, numbers have dropped by an extraordinary 97per cent.
This is due to the unlikely sounding fact that diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly prescribed to both animals and humans, causes instant and fatal kidney failure in vultures if ingested. Enough of the drug remains in the flesh, it seems, to have almost wiped out India’s population of flying rubbish disposal units.
The Parsees have a problem and now use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun and speed up the decomposition of the bodies, much to the consternation of their neighbours.
But can the food crisis in Europe really cause vultures to turn killer?
The answer seems to be a pretty unequivocal “no”. “Vultures do not like to take live prey,” says Mr Madge. But starving birds do seem to be becoming bolder.
For instance, the birds sometimes eat the placentas of newborn sheep, but now they try to eat them while still attached. And, according to a New Scientist report in June, there have been cases of vultures grabbing the bodies of shot animals before the hunters can reach them.
But vultures taking on healthy adult cows? No way. These tales are fuelled not only by mountain spirit, but also by the promise of healthy compensation payouts. Nevertheless, reports of vultures attacking smaller animals do need looking into, say ornithologists.
But there have not been any credible reports of vultures attacking people. Although they are large, powerful birds strong enough to do considerable damage, they have simply not evolved to tackle large living animals.
Their ecological niche is to feast on the dead and, in fact, even the largest vultures are timid and will rapidly back off if approached. We must probably dismiss the tales from the Pyrenees as silly-season stuff, to be filed with Cornish great whites and Dartmoor beasts.
The vulture is an unloved bird, nobody’s favourite. They are scrawny, ugly creatures with feeding habits that invoke a mixture of fear and disgust.
But, like all creatures, however unattractive they may be, vultures have a job to do, and in this case an extremely valuable one. Like maggots and bacteria, vultures are a vital part of the cycle of birth, death and decay. No one wants to see them circling overhead, perhaps, but we would certainly miss them if they were gone.
Original article here