Bearded vulture: 'lammergeier' with 9 foot wingspan spotted in UK for only the second time - why it's so rare

The vultures can be identified by their long, narrow wings, with a tail longer than the width of the wing

(Photo: MONIKA SKOLIMOWSKA/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo: MONIKA SKOLIMOWSKA/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

A rare bird spotted swooping through the skies of the Peak District is one of the largest wild birds ever seen in the UK.

Hundreds of birdwatchers descended upon Hope Valley, near Sheffield, after a bearded vulture was seen over Howden Moor.

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The bird is larger than the famous golden eagle, and has only been spotted in the UK once before, when another of the species - also known as a lammergeier - from the alpine population was seen over Dartmoor four years ago.

Why is it so rare?

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The bird is native to continental Europe, although even there they had been hunted to near extinction by the early 20th century. The bearded vulture has been classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as being near threatened.

They remain common in Africa (the species is most common in Ethiopia) and the Indian subcontinent, and in the 1980s they were successfully reintroduced to the French Alps, with over 200 birds released there between 1987 to 2015.

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It is thought the bird seen in the Peak District originated from there, and experts believe the vulture may have been blown off course during bad weather.

The birds are particularly at risk in underdeveloped areas where human populations are rising, as the increase of infrastructure and the building of houses, roads and power lines means more obstacles for the impressive vultures to collide with.

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That, coupled with reduced food availability, poisons left out for carnivores and direct persecution in the form of Trophy Hunting, means numbers continue to decline.

Where was the bird spotted?

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Birdwatchers say the bird was tracked through the West Midlands and Derbyshire, but nobody had “pinned it down” until the weekend.

The wild bird of prey was originally spotted swooping over the Peak District, with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust encouraging visitors to “keep their eyes on the sky” for a chance glimpse of the animal.

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However, it is thought the lammergeier may have then travelled towards Sheffield after residents reported sightings over the city, following sightings in the Edale, Castleton and Goyt Valley areas of Derbyshire.

The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has established that it is two years old and has come from the Alps. Lammergeiers scavenge for carrion and are not a threat to people or wildlife.

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How big can they be?

The birds - known as Homa birds in Iran and north west Asia - are distinguished by their feathered necks and lozenge-shaped tails, which are unusual among birds of prey.

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The bird’s impressive wingspan is what birdwatchers really seek, and the lammergeyer can average 2.31 to 2.83 metres across. It can stretch to over nine feet, at its biggest.

The vultures can be identified by their long, narrow wings, with a tail longer than the width of the wing.

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Don’t go listening for any telltale calls, though - the bearded vulture is silent apart from shrill whistles in its breeding displays.

The name ‘lammergeier’ comes from the German ‘Lämmergeier’, which means ‘lamb-vulture’. The name stems from the belief that the birds attacked lambs.

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The bearded vulture is the only known vertebrate whose diet consists almost exclusively of bone, and usually lives and breeds on crags in high mountains.