It seems to me that what England lacks is vultures. I’m recently back from Spain, where I’ve been travelling in the Pyrenees with my old friend Chris Breen, chief exec of the travel company Wildlife Worldwide. And it was vultures that stole the show.
Mostly it was the griffon vultures that dominated: great big cruisy birds that hug the cliff-edges, flying so close you can’t believe they won’t bump into the wall and fall out of the sky. It’s finger-tip control on those updrafts of wind and in those columns of warm air, the thermals in which the birds can hitch a free ride to the clouds and beyond.
Among them you can find the odd Egyptian vulture: white, much smaller, and with a delicate little hook of a bill: a much more finicky class of scavenger. I didn’t get lucky with the black vulture, but I never mind that too much: always glad for a reason to come back. I prefer my lists uncompleted.
But marvellous views of lammergeier: long narrow wings and a tail shaped like a diamond: vast imposing birds with an air of monumental self-confidence. There is something thrillingly unEnglish about such birds, even if the odd Egyptian vulture has made it to England.
There are several reasons for England’s shortage of vultures. The first is there is lack of large carcases on the ground. We don’t go in for vast open-range areas for livestock. When EU regulations, coming in during the BSE emergency, required carcases to be cleared up at once, the Spanish vulture population plummeted.
These days they are fed routinely with slaughterhouse leavings; I’ve been to such places and it’s a stimulating change from your usual bird table of peanuts and bird-feeders. A lot better than no vultures. They know the day of delivery and recognise the van from miles off: ancient vulturine skills used in a new way for the same old purpose.
Another reason for the shortage of English vultures is the shortage of lift. Big ranges of mountains with permanent winds, updraughts and ridge-winds are important for vultures, so and is the warm air that makes for those temperature differences that creates thermals. Massive birds like vultures would find it hard to stay airborne in England.
The traditional English scavenger was always the red kite, much smaller and less reliant on the possibilities of soaring. Hamlet – admittedly nominally Danish — regretting his failure to murder his uncle, says: “I should have fatted all the region kites with this slave’s offal”. Kites, not vultures, for Hamlet, and for England. A good job we’ve reintroduced them: the corpse of King Claudius wouldn’t last long if you laid it out on the M40, under the famous red-kite sector of the motorway.
Spain is good place to forget about being English for a few days, and you can do that just by looking at the sky, at least when you happen to be in the mountains. I’ve come back full of bounce. Thanks Spain, thanks, vultures, thanks Chris.