We had a fantastic day out at the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Andover last Sunday, seeing a huge range of birds of prey. But my two most enduring memories both involved vultures.
Remarkably, I had never visited the Hawk Conservancy Trust before, despite having lived in the neighbouring village of Thruxton. It’s the number one attraction in Hampshire on TripAdvisor, and with good reason. Aside from being a great place for the family to visit, its mission is the conservation of birds of prey.
Anyhow, this isn’t a review, so back to my story.
Vultures have a pretty bad reputation, don’t they? People think of them as ugly creatures who feast off the bodies of dead animals. And while they’re never going to win any avian beauty contests, they’re remarkably graceful in flight. We watched a show where a squadron of six vultures swooped backwards and forwards across the width of the stand. They passed close enough to spectators to feel like they were almost brushing us with their wing-tips. Yes, people ducked.
It was a display of low-altitude formation flying that the Red Arrows would have been proud of. You know that moment in Top Gun when Maverick buzzes the control tower? Yeah, that.
We also learned that vultures are now critically endangered. As usual, the primary reason for this is the interference and cruelty of humans. Rhino and elephant poachers illegally kill their prey, which is bad enough. But dead carcasses attract vultures, whose tell-tale presence overhead attracts the unwanted attention of rangers. To avoid detection, poachers lace the carcasses with poison. One of these alone can kill hundreds of vultures, as well as leopards, hyenas, cranes and storks.
The threat goes beyond the potential extinction of vultures, though. Like all animals, they play a key role in the ecosystem. Without them the delicate balance of nature falls out of kilter. By feeding on carcasses, vultures reduce the threat of breeding diseases such as rabies, which can then be spread by other animals. No vultures, more disease. And all because poachers want to evade capture and escape with their booty of rhino horn and elephant tusk.
Isn’t that just incredibly sad?
Anyhow, the kids (hopefully) took away at least that one conservation lesson from. But just as importantly they had a fantastic day. The display shows were breathtaking – as good as I have ever seen involving animals. It was also great to see the birds able to fly free outside their enclosures on a regular basis.
But yes, I’ll never look at a vulture quite the same way again.
The Hawk Conservancy Trust is located just off the A303, four miles west of Andover, Hampshire. You can find out more about them on their website https://www.hawk-conservancy.org. I was not paid or in any other way incentivised to write this post.