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Bearded vulture once more soars above Massif Central

One of the world’s rarest, biggest and most striking vultures, the bearded vulture, gypaète barbu in French or Lammergeier, is back in the Massif Central, after an absence of almost 100 years.

Standing over a metre tall and with a 2.50 to 2.85m wingspan, it is bigger than a golden eagle and longer than a lion.

It disappeared from the Alps and Massif Central in the early 20th century but a few survived in Corsica, as did a small population in the Pyrenees. Now, thanks to a Vulture Conservation Foun­dation reintroduction project, the bearded vulture is back in all of its old French territories.

It vanished in the 19th and early 20th centuries as carcasses poisoned with lead shot, chemicals and veterinary medicines reduced their numbers dramatically, along with the over-hunting of ibex and chamois, its main source of carrion.

Many people shot them, fearing these large, fierce-looking birds would carry off lambs – hence the name, Lammergeier (lamb vulture) – and the particularly paranoid feared the vulture might even carry off their babies.

In reality, bearded vultures do not eat much meat from the carcasses that they scavenge and bones make up 80-90% of their diet.

It can swallow bones the size of a sheep’s vertebrae and drop bigger ones on to on rocks to smash into more manageable pieces.

Like all vultures, bearded vultures play a crucial role in their ecosystems. These scavengers have corrosive acid in their stomachs and can digest decomposing carcasses containing anthrax, cholera, rabies and other infectious diseases.

The Vulture Conservation Foundation has released nine bearded vultures into the Massif Central since 2010. VCF director José Tavares said that despite having one bird electrocuted and another sick with lead poisoning “they’re doing OK and we nursed the sick one back to health.”

VCF started breeding captive bearded vultures in the late 1970s and reintroduced the first of them in 1986, in the Alps. Since then, it has introduced more than 200 individuals in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. In 2006, it reintroduced bearded vultures into Andalusia, Spain.

“The idea is to restore the bird across its former European range,” said Mr Tavares, adding that captive breeding programmes are the only way to return such a rare animal into the wild.

“Numbers were too low in the Pyrenees and Corsica. Taking even a few birds for reintroduction elsewhere, would have put the original population at risk.”

Unmistakable with its bright yellow or pink feathers, the result of many hours rubbing its naturally white feathers in ferrous oxide soil;  bearded vultures need mountainous areas to nest, breed and feed.

“Sometimes they will go on long flights over wide areas,” Mr Tavares says, (there have been sightings in northern France, the Netherlands and Hamburg) “but after a while, the vultures will return to their mountain homes.”

France has four of the world’s 23 species of vulture with the Griffons, the most abundant, and Cinereous, the largest, in the Pyrenees and the Alps and more recently, the Massif Central. The much smaller Egyptian vulture spends part of the year in the Pyrenees and the Grand Causses.

Of the 23, 16 are so-called “old-world vultures” as they are found in Eurasia and Africa – they also include raptors like eagles and hawks – while seven new-world vultures live in the Americas and are more closely related to storks.

The VCF says Europe has 600 to 1,000 breeding pairs of bearded vultures, including Russia and Turkey. There are 175 in the Pyrenees, 33 in the Alps and five in Corsica. The vultures do not start breeding until eight or nine years old, so the new Massif Central birds are expected to have their first young in 2018 or 2019.

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