Sunday book review – A Vulture Landscape by Ian Parsons

Ian Parsons has written more than 20 guest blogs here and so is a fairly familiar name to this blog’s readers. But when not writing for this blog he is a nature tour leader in Extremadura and this blog is about that land, west of Madrid and stretching to the Portuguese border, its wildlife and especially about its vultures.

This book takes us through the year, starting in April, and paints a picture of the wildlife of the plains, the cork oakwoods, the mountains and the few wetlands. Now I know the area quite well, having visited many times, and the reason that I have kept going back is that this is a sparsely populated, beautiful region of Spain that is rich in wildlife at all times of year. Turning the pages of this book reminded me of hot August days out on the plains, spring mornings in the woodlands and winter evenings watching Cranes heading to roost.

But this is not simply a good account of the changing seasons, it also has a lot of information about vultures in its pages. Ian Parsons is a vulture enthusiast and he writes about his observations of the three commonly seen species of Extremadura, Griffon, Black and Egyptian, and also of the Bearded Vulture which is being reintroduced to Spain and of other vulture species across the world, and their ecology and conservation.

Ian’s enthusiasm for this place, its varied wildlife and for vultures in particular leaps off the pages. He is a good observer of behaviour, well-versed in the biology of the species he sees and a good writer who brings the scenes to life.

I am a fan of vultueres too, but I think not as great a one as Ian (but since he writes a couple of good paragraphs about a male Hen Harrier then we’re clearly on the same wavelength) and I am a fan of this area so the book was a hit with me. My mind often takes me back to familiar roads through the plains north of Oropesa or south of Trujillo, and to woodlands and gorges along the River Tajo, and no more so than in these months of reduced travel when I would have loved to see Lesser Kestrels hovering as Great Bustards strutted through the grass and larks sang above, or Golden Orioles sang as wheatears called and martins and swifts flew overhead.

This book may entice you in future years to visit this area, perhaps with Ian as your guide, but even if you never visit, reading his observations and thoughts, particularly about vultures, will reward your investment.

The book is well produced with a large number of quality colour photographs by the author.

A Vulture Landscape: 12 months in Extremadura by Ian Parsons is published by Whittles Publishing.


5 Replies to “Sunday book review – A Vulture Landscape by Ian Parsons”

  1. I will definitely read this. If there was anything that ever fully established my interest in wildlife it was my wonderful grandparents buying me the Orbis ‘World of Wildlife’ series of magazines. They built up to form Encyclopedia after you had the set and sent away a postal order for the hard cover. There was a very big emphasis in three volumes on Spain, especially Coto Donana and this was glorious. Spain looked like a European version of Africa – with vultures among much else – if that makes sense.

    Many years later I got the chance to visit Spain when the farming family I worked for in Suffolk let me stay free of charge at a villa they were building in the south east corner of the country. Not too far from the built up coast and no electricity or running water, but as I would be up in the hills I thought I could spend the whole of February out all day looking at plants, insects and birds with a little rucksack with bread, cheese, an apple and bottle of plonk – escaping a big bit of a UK winter, heaven.

    What I got when I arrived was the most god awful, ecologically devastated landscape I’ve ever had the misfortune to see in my life. The soil was practically all gone and there were erosion gullies everywhere – no surprise the homes on the coast periodically got hit with massive flooding. The very little vegetation that existed was mainly comprised of invasive species like Bermuda buttercup. I saw a hoopoe which was great, but that was it absolutely no birds of prey in the sky for miles around. I got excited when I was bitten by a mosquito because that suggested open water somewhere, it turned out it probably came from a neglected swimming pool.

    I left after a week, plenty of money about for building villas, but not one peseta or iota of interest in trying to restore the land and bring back any wildlife, although the Spanish people were otherwise wonderful. I still hope to get to Spain to see the good bits, but there’s at least one bloody big chunk in the south east that’s a wildlife desert and is bloody crap for people too and that needs attention, but never seems to get it. It was foul, the sort of destruction you read about and hope is over the top (e.g Madagascar), but it wasn’t.

    Not the cataclysmic ‘climate change will kill us’ line, but the real in front of your nose, happening right now environmental destruction that should be highlighted, but rarely is. Maybe like the devastated Scottish highlands it’s assumed it’s natural.

    1. I don’t know Spain well but from my limited experience of it, it is clear that much of the coast has been butchered by unsympathetic development chasing the mass tourism market. Spanish agriculture/horticulture has affected huge areas of land with intensive fruit and vegetable production with little or no room for wildlife. The glorious Coto Donana has suffered badly from excessive water abstraction from the Guadalquivir and water pollution (including catastrophic events from tailings dam bursts).

      Ian’s book shows that if you know where to go there are still wonderful places to visit in what is a vast and relatively thinly populated country (and to be fair I have had some lovely wildlife experiences in Spain) but the experience of Les shows that it is far from being an unspoilt natural paradise from one coast to the other. We often hear comments that seem to suggest that the impoverished wildlife of the UK is an issue unique to us and that the rest of Europe is run in a much more enlightened way but I fear this view is naive. Most European countries suffer similar issues to us to a greater or lesser degree. In those countries where there remains a lot of wildlife, such as the countries in the SE of the Union, this is partly explained by the fact that they are economically relatively undeveloped compared to the West and we should be aware they are determined to catch up!

      None of this excuses the dreadful condition into which we have allowed British wildlife to decline but we should be aware that wildlife is under threat elsewhere in Europe too. Sadly, as a nation we have thrown away our right to have any input into European agricultural and other policies affecting the environment but we should certainly seek to support our friends in Europe in whatever ways we can to protect its wonderful wildlife. Ian’s beloved vultures could all too easily be lost!

      1. Spot on Jonathon, from the plane the eastern coast of Spain is one ribbon of development and close to it’s bog standard palm trees and watered lawns, not much if any incorporation of wildlife habitat or eco features for the buildings. It didn’t have to be the way it is. The other place in Europe my WoW books emphasised as ultra special was the forest at Bialowieza, along with Coto Donana they were near mythical places for the nature loving wee boy I was. In my adulthood they are under severe pressure from ignorance, greed and indifference. Heart breaking.

  2. I’ve read this book and been to the area, guided by Ian, so some of the places he describes I remember. A brilliant place especially for me who had not seen vultures at all and not that many Black Kites. The book is an easy read, well written as Mark says and a great place to start learning or reminding yourself of this fantastic area.

  3. The rolling plains of Extramadura, north of Torreogaz, Great Bustard central, one of my favourite places in the world.

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