From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn11970&feedId=online-news_rss20

Starving vultures switch to live prey
by Debora MacKenzie  /  01 June 2007

Big flocks of vultures are attacking live animals in Spain. Near-
starvation has forced the scavengers to switch to live prey because of
laws brought in to control mad cow disease (BSE).

In 2002, the European Union banned the dumping of cattle carcasses,
requiring they be incinerated by licensed firms.

This was to keep the infectious prion that causes BSE from spreading
to the environment or other animals. But it meant an end to the age-
old farming practice of leaving dead animals for the vultures.

It has led to “a serious problem for carrion-feeding birds, which are
failing to find enough food to survive,” says Ana Iñigo of the Spanish
Ornithological Society.

Griffon suffers most

The big griffon vultures are hardest hit, as Spain’s three other
vulture species feed on small wild animals, while the griffons depend
on cattle.

In fact, increased intensive livestock farming may be behind the
Spanish griffons’ conservation success story – multiplying
“spectacularly” from 3000 to 20,000 breeding pairs between 1980 and
2000, says vulture expert José Donàzar of the Doñana Biological
Station near Seville, Spain. But now they are feeling the pinch.

“In 2007, the breeding success of griffons is at its lowest for many
years,” he says. Starving vultures are turning up at wildlife recovery
centres, and the number of griffon attacks on livestock seems to have
increased.

New law may help

Griffons have always occasionally attacked sick, unmoving animals or
newborns, says Iñigo, but now it is more frequent. So far no healthy
animals have been attacked.

The birds normally eat the placentas of newborn sheep in pastures,
says Iñigo, but now “the vulture tries to eat it even before it has
come off the sheep.” And the birds are grabbing shot animals from
Spanish hunters before they can reach it.

Farmers are demanding that vulture numbers be controlled. Instead,
Spain’s environment ministry is drafting a new law based on exceptions
allowed under the EU measure, which will let some farmers in remote
areas to use vultures for carcass disposal.

However, biologists warn that this could concentrate the birds in
those areas, leaving them vulnerable to local disease or environmental
upset.