A vulture in the middle of England? A wild, free-flying nine-foot-winged bird of the Alps and Pyrenees; a bone-eating, tortoise-dropping inhabitant of wolf-haunted montane crags; here over the Derbyshire moors, with their grouse and their sadly piping pipits – the very idea seems somehow momentous.
Even as we watched the creature – a second-year, probably female, bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) – sail along the wind-blasted gritstone edge at Shining Clough Moss, it was hard to credit something so expressive of European wilderness. Yet there it floated with barely a flap – massive, glamorous, completely calm – and wheeling away from aggressive buzzards that mithered after it. These lesser predators, which are themselves no mean aerial masters, looked by the side of the giant no bigger than jackdaws. Each one in its entirety was less than one wing’s length of the vulture.
Yet there have been precedents and predictions of just such a visitation to Derbyshire. On 4 June 1927, two griffon vultures were seen in the skies over Ashbourne. Sadly the record has since been rejected, but there are some who still believe in those birds of nearly a century ago.
Reintroduction programmes in Switzerland, Austria and Italy have seen bearded vulture numbers treble in recent years. There have also been numerous modern records of wild birds wandering across northern Europe. In 2000, when several griffon vultures were seen in the Netherlands, it was pointed out that at 22,000ft, which is an elevation well within the range of these high-soaring birds, a vulture could look across the North Sea and actually see, on a clear day, all the way to the Peak District.
The more troubling reflection concerns the bird’s safe return. The Peak District national park holds several grouse moors that are among the worst British localities for the illegal killing of raptors. So far the bird has managed to avoid any mishap and has survived on sheep carcasses (its old German name lammergeier means “lamb vulture”). To return to the mountains of its birth, however, this bearded vulture must fly back over the heads of roughly 90 million people. One can only pray it completes the homeward leg of its youthful adventure just as safely.