Over 30 professionals working for Bearded Vulture conservation in Spain gathered in Sierra de Gredos between 2-4 October. The technical meeting was a chance to analyse captive-breeding methodologies, population dynamics and the success of reintroduction projects. Organised by the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ), within the framework of the project LIFE PRO BV: Corredores Ibéricos por el Quebrantahuesos, it gathered participants representing several regional government agencies, research experts and two NGOs: us at the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) and staff from the FCQ.
Joining forces for Bearded Vulture conservation in Spain
Spain is a critical player in vulture conservation. With over 505.000 km2 of surface and a wide diversity of habitats, the country holds the largest populations of all five vulture species that breed in Europe. Bringing together experts working for Bearded Vulture conservation in different regions is an opportunity to exchange best practices and breeding methods and, above all, coordinate efforts to ensure a bright future for the species.
Although the global Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) population is considered “Vulnerable” across the globe, in the Mediterranean basin, the species holds an “Endangered” status. Over the last decades, though, there has been an increase in the wild populations in several European countries, thanks to the ongoing reintroduction and restocking efforts.
Bearded Vulture conservation in Spain
Spain’s wild Bearded Vulture population is estimated to have ~163 breeding pairs (Population estimates for the five European vulture species: 2022 update, VCF). While most of the population is located in the Pyrenees, which was the main stronghold of the species in Europe for a long time, the productivity there is very low, when compared to the reintroduced population in the Alps, for example.
There are also ongoing programmes to restore the species in other Spanish regions, namely Andalusia and Maestrazgo (by the VCF), Picos de Europa, and Gredos (by the FCQ).
Captive-breeding to restock Bearded Vulture populations
In Andalusia, 10 years after the species became regionally extinct, a reintroduction project was started in 1996. Until today, 90 Bearded Vultures (88 captive-bred from the EEP and 2 wild recovered nestling/fledgling)have been released in Andalusia across various territories. Some birds released have already reached breeding age, and this year, there were 10 territories occupied. Eight breeding pairs could lay a clutch, five chicks hatched, but only two survived. Additionally, 4 pairs are forming, but did not reproduce this season. Inexperienced pairs tend to fail during their first breeding attempts, which is why we are still releasing youngsters yearly in Andalusia. This breeding season, two juveniles were released in Castril Nature Park, and five others in Sierras de Cazorla, Segura e Villas Nature Park, 4 from the Bearded Vulture EEP and 1 rescued in Catalonya.
In Maestrazgo, thanks to a reintroduction project ongoing since 2018, 14 birds have been released so far, including three juveniles this summer. Once the Maestrazgo population is established, it will be important in bridging the Andalusian and Pyrenean populations.
The Pyrenean population is mainly followed by the FCQ and staff from the regional governments of Aragón, Navarra and Catalonia. They keep several vulture feeding stations, monitor breeding pairs, create better habitat conditions and mitigate threats affecting population survival. The FCQ are also releasing young Bearded Vultures in Picos de Europa and Gredos, where five individuals have been recently released, raised from eggs collected in the wild, in nests at risk or of pairs with a history of very low breeding success, following a protocol which was agreed by the spanish authorities.
Different captive-breeding methods
The Bearded Vultures released by the VCF come from different captive-breeding centres and Zoos across Europe, which are members of the Bearded Vulture Captive-Breeding Network (Bearded Vulture EEP). As the network coordinators on behalf of EAZA, the VCF holds the species study book and is responsible for pairing the 183 birds held captive across 40 zoos and centres. The birds are reared by Bearded Vulture pairs held in captivity. Once they are three months-old and not yet ready to fly, they are released in mountain hacking facilities to mimic their natural way of fledging, also known as a soft release methodology.
Fundación Quebrantahuesos, on the other hand, follows a different rearing strategy. With an historical tradition on the species conservation in the Pyrenees, they closely monitor several breeding pais in the wild in Aragón, the species stronghold. To increase breeding success, they save clutches at risk of failing. The FCQ then incubates the clutches and takes the chicks to a hacking facility in the mountains, where they are fed and cared for by human keepers. To prevent human imprinting, though, they use a Bearded Vulture puppet to provide and nurture the chicks, which are then released into the wild following a similar soft release strategy.
Technical meeting gathers NGOs and regional governments in Gredos
From the VCF, the Director José Tavares and the Coordinators of our captive-breeding Centres, Álex Lopez and Pakillo Rodríguez (Vallcalent and Guadalentín) attended the two-day meeting in Gredos. The balance is very positive; there were critical technical discussions on breeding, releasing and monitoring strategies. Participants had the chance to visit the hacking site in Gredos, where the FCQ is releasing juveniles. During the field trip, they were lucky to see a juvenile Bearded Vulture reintroduced in Andalusia.
“Most significantly, the meeting laid a robust foundation for collaboration and exchange in the future, and the basis for a joint management of the species conservation efforts.”José Tavares, VCF Director
Participants committed to fostering cooperation and sharing information, essential for securing a promising future for this emblematic species that once thrived across nearly all the mountain ranges of the Iberian Peninsula.