When a bearded vulture last year graced the UK with its presence, awed birdwatchers from across the country gathered in the Derbyshire moors in the hope of catching a glance.
Now conservationists are hoping to make sightings of these magnificent birds more frequent by adding raw nature back into the countryside.
No one wants to see dead livestock lying in the field, covered in flies, while on a picturesque countryside walk. And after the horrors of mad cow disease, it is strictly forbidden to leave dead farm animals out – they must be taken away and disposed of safely, usually burned.
However, this has meant the countryside is mostly bereft of carrion for predatory birds such as eagles and vultures to feed on – leaving them to pick at paltry portions of roadkill, putting their lives at risk on busy roads in the process.
A solution from some bird-lovers is to build a “sky table”, on which they put carrion – dead foxes and deer – and leave it to be fed on by corvids and raptors. The grubs and maggots which feed on the decomposing body also provide food for smaller birds.
Derek Gow, who runs a rewilding farm in Devon, built his 10ft-high sky table when he saw a white-tailed eagle lurking on the moors nearby.
He said the countryside has been “tidied up”, with not enough death for scavengers and predators to feed on, and often slings roadkill up onto the table. “All the livestock that dies is supposed to be taken away and incinerated, which leaves birds feeding on roads and highways on squashed rats,” he said. “When white-tailed eagles come inland, there’s nothing for them to eat except roadkill. We wanted to provide a rich amount of death for them to feed on.
He says that this summer white-tailed eagles have flown over the table twice and he is hoping this will soon lead to them coming to feed.
“The eagles follow the ravens to see where to eat,” he said. “We’ve had ravens, magpies, carrion crows, buzzards, red kites. Woodpeckers have used the carcasses too, and starlings have fed on the grubs and maggots there as the carcasses decompose. It’s providing a wide range of food.”
Gow, a beef and sheep farmer, is not yet allowed to put dead livestock on his table, but he has called for this rule to change.
“We have a sanitised countryside, where most of the animals that wander round fields are destined for death, but those deaths will all be in slaughterhouses and abattoirs,” he said. “We take everything from the land and return absolutely nothing. In doing so, we deny the creatures that feed on the death.”
Gow has inspired others to do the same, including financier and conservationist Ben Goldsmith, who is a Defra board member and the brother of environment minister Lord Goldsmith.
After seeing Gow’s sky table on Twitter, Goldsmith made his own on his land in Bruton, Somerset. He said: “One of the white-tailed eagles that has been released on the Isle of Wight has been hanging out at Longleat, just down the road from me, so I’m hoping to tempt it over.
“I made a really simple structure around 8ft high and we chucked a roadkill deer up there,” he said. “The carcasses get eaten within three days, so something’s going there. I think it’s buzzards but there’s been a red kite circling around.”
Goldsmith is hoping, with more death left to rot in the countryside, vultures can be tempted.
“We should be calling for some sort of derogation that enables farmers to leave the odd fallen animal for wildlife. Golden eagles are recovering in Britain and they need something to eat. We had a griffon vulture here – they could well be here again.”
Other European countries, including Spain, have legal exemptions for leaving dead animals out for vultures after bird experts warned that they did not have enough to eat.
This article by Helena Horton was first published by The Guardian on 14 August 2021. Lead Image: Bearded vultures are among the predatory birds searching for carrion to feed on. Photograph: AfriPics.com/Alamy.
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