Wild Bearded Vulture in the Peak District

(c) Indy Greene

Who would have thought I would be writing a blog about one of the most amazing birds ever to visit the UK!
To see a wild Bearded Vulture in the wild in the Peak District National Park was truly mind-blowing and an unforgettable experience.

The last few days will live me forever.

To get up so close to such a magnificent bird and have it circling close over your heads was something I never expected to see when I had got reports from a friend that a very large bird of prey had been seen over the moors above Chatsworth. That night I went out on a fruitless drive around that area with my eldest son but the trail was cold! Then the following day I heard it had been seen flying along a ridge in the Upper Derwent Valley. That evening we scanned all the hills around the Ladybower reservoir and still no sign of the Vulture. Then we spoke to another birdwatcher who told me he had learnt it had been seen on remote moorland above the reservoirs. We drove to where the last sighting had been made and lots of other birdwatchers were already walking up a steep moorland track. Clearly we were getting closer to one of the rarest, largest birds ever to visit the UK – only the second time in fact this bird has turned up in Britain. But we were running out of daylight and the hike in to the last known sighting was still nearly 2 hours away!  We managed to hit the ridge as the sun was setting and in the distance on a remote hillside we could see a small group of birdwatchers with their telescopes clearly focussing on the elusive Bearded Vulture. It had settled for the night in a narrow clough with rocky ledges. I was in luck but it would mean a predawn start the next day to have any chance of seeing the bird.

The following morning under a brilliantly clear starry sky I started the ascent up on the moorland and over the boggy plateau to where the bird was roosting. I was joined by dozens of other people excited to have a once in a lifetime opportunity to see such an incredibly bird right here in the Peak District. As the sun was rising, and after yomping over rough terrain and bogs I arrived opposite the Bearded Vulture. Other birdwatchers were already there. The bird was snoozing and totally oblivious to the dozens of people watching it from across the valley at a very safe distance. Every now and again it would open its eyes and preen one of its feathers. After nearly 3 hours it finally got serious about moving. After flapping its wings it flew down onto the floor of the clough onto a large flat rock and soaked up the rays of the early morning sun. Then it lifted off. As it spiralled out of the clough it circled our group several times and came within 40 feet of us. And then it disappeared over the hill. We were all in shock and elated at the same time at what we had just witnessed. Some people just shouted with joy. That’s the power of nature. The most incredible connection with one of the most incredible birds on the planet – the Bearded Vulture or the Bone Breaker!

Birds of Prey

(c) Indy Greene

Why is it here in the Peak District?

The last UK record of a Bearded Vulture was on Dartmoor in 2016. This bird is an immature wild bird. It has no rings or wing tags so is a wild bird. It is most likely to have come from the Alps judging where it has been already in Europe this year although the Pyrenees is a possibility. There are an estimated 600-1000 pairs of Bearded Vultures in the wild in Europe stretching from Spain, French and Swiss Alps, Turkey, the Balkans and Russia. It also extends into the Indian subcontinent and Africa. It is the rarest vulture in Europe and is listed endangered.. There has been an ongoing Bearded Vulture captive breeding programme in Europe for over 2 decades coordinated by the Vulture Conservation Foundation www.4vultures.org. This supports re-introducing birds back into the wild to boost the population from where it has become extinct or very low in numbers. This work has been focussed on the French and Swiss Alps.

It is normal for young Bearded Vultures to range across huge areas, often outside of typical breeding habitat for the species in mountainous areas such as the Alps or Pyrenees. Each year, normally in the spring, there are several records of immature Bearded Vultures "out of range" in northern Europe, including some birds that are released as part of the Alps reintroduction project. Due to its distinctive plumage and missing tail feathers we do know that it is the same bird that was seen in northern Europe recently in Belgium and Holland. The very unusual thing about this long distance journey is the fact that the bird successfully crossed the English Channel, even though Bearded Vultures rarely cross large water bodies of water. Perhaps the crossing was assisted by the recent very strong winds. 

As long as the bird continues to find food and a safe roostingsite, it might not feel the need to move on for the moment. This is an unprecedented situation so it is very difficult to predict how the bird will behave and adapt to its new surroundings. If it returns south then it would need to cross the Channel again, which is a potentially hazardous journey. To return to the Alps or Pyrenees it would need to find enough food along the way, as well as avoid the different threats that are sometimes more numerous in lowland areas, such as collisions with power lines. It is not unusual for these long distance travellers to have to be rescued (often weakened due to lack of food), rehabilitated and re-released in more suitable mountainous habitat.

Birders North Derbyshire

(c) Tim Birch

Concerns for the birds safety

It is deeply worrying that the Bearded Vulture has ended up in hot spot for wildlife life crime and bird of prey persecution. You would think this incredible bird would be totally safe in the Peak District National Park but that is not the case sadly. The uplands of the Peak District have a history of persecution of birds of prey which is totally illegal as all birds of prey are highly protected. Over the past 8 years over 20 cases of confirmed cases of bird of prey persecution have been documented across the Peak District.. Birds such as Peregrines, Buzzards, Goshawk, Red Kite, Osprey and Hen Harriers have been targeted. This persecution is often linked to grouse moors and the Bearded Vulture has currently settled right in the middle of grouse shooting country. However if anything suspicious were to happen to this bird it would create an international outcry given the importance of this bird within Europe.

Amazing facts about this bird

Adult Bearded Vultures have an orange colour. This is due to them bathing in iron oxide rich substrates and this is a status symbol indicating genetic fitness. The more orange coloured the bird the bigger the territory it will have. They mate for life. It has a 3 metre wingspan and is over a metre in length. Their diet is 80% bone and marrow and they mainly feed on bones from large herbivores. They often carry the bones to heights of around 100 metres at specific bone breaking sites on rocks. This smashes the bones up to release the bone marrow. The bones are dissolved in the stomach releasing nutrient levels equivalent to fresh meat, They feed the young fresh bones and don’t regurgitate for their young. They prefer bones to fresh meat which is extremely rare for a vulture. It’s the rarest vulture in Europe with between 600 to 1000 pairs. It is threatened due to human development and loss of habitat. It is also still illegally hunted and subject to poisoning in some areas. It is not in conflict with farmers as it mainly feeds on bones and not livestock. The name Lammergaier, a German name, loosely translating as “lamb vulture” has unfortunately led to historical persecution by farmers despite it not killing lambs but feeding on lamb and sheep carcasses. It holds enormous breeding territories of nearly 700 square kilometres but their foraging territories is even bigger at a staggering 7500 square kilometres. It is rarely found below 2000 metres in the mountains where it breeds and prefers mountainous areas where wolves and eagles live as they don’t compete for food and wait patiently until these animals have eaten prey they have caught leaving the skeletons of these animals behind for the Bearded Vulture to feed on. These vultures have been found at heights of over 24000 feet on Mount Everest. They benefit the ecosystem by removing dead carcasses and this helps with disease control in the environment.   

Bird of Prey At Roost Site

(c) Tim Birch

What has this bird taught us?

The reintroduction of the Bearded Vulture across its former range in Europe is a very successful and positive story. It shows that we can restore once lost species, increase the population of this stunning bird and have a bird almost extinct ranging far and wide across Europe providing incredible and unique wildlife experiences to vast audiences across Europe.

People have been overjoyed to see such an incredible wild bird right here in our own backyard in Derbyshire. Hundreds of people have seen this bird. It shows the power of connecting to Nature particularly in these difficult times with Covid19. Seeing this bird in the uplands of the Peak District has given us a glimpse of what a wilder future could look like. We should have Pine Marten, Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles back in the Peak District National Park along with healthy populations of Peregrines, Goshawk and Red Kite to name but a few species. We will all benefit along with the wildlife when our National Parks and the environment becomes wilder.

Viewing the Bearded Vulture, Howden Moor

Please keep a respectable distance of at least 100m in order to not distress him.

Parking and access

  • Parking is available at Upper Derwent Valley Pay & Display car park. Please note this is a popular area and is often at full capacity by mid-morning. If parking in other areas please do not obstruct the highway or block access gates to property.
  • The walking route involves a distance of approx. 5-6km (3/3.5 miles) each way and may take between 1.5hrs to 2hrs each way depending on your level of fitness.
  • The route is not formally waymarked and involves areas of rough ground and inclines
  • There are no facilities at any point along the route to the viewing area, the nearest toilets to the start of the routes are at Upper Derwent Valley

Be prepared

  • Due to the nature of the access routes, it is strongly recommended that observers are well prepared, including:
    • Suitable footwear
    • Appropriate and adequate clothing for all conditions (which may change quickly on higher ground)
    • Food and drink provisions (please take all litter away with you – no bins are available on the route)
    • A fully charged mobile phone
    • You may wish to download the ///What3Words location app, for emergency use only
Bird of Prey Bearded Vulture

(c) Indy Greene