Discussion and Conclusion

Land abandonment is widespread in many European areas with poor agricultural development. In the face of this situation, the rewilding of abandoned landscapes (defined as the passive management of ecological succession, see Chap. 1; Fig. 5.7) is viewed as an opportunity to recover native biodiversity and ecological processes and provide a range of ecosystem services (Cramer et al. 2008; and see Chaps. 1, 3). In contrast, active management is aimed at the maintenance of low-intensity agriculture in order to conserve specific organisms and particular habitats, often working against succession processes (e.g. Pain and Pienkowski 1997). This dichotomy is subject to a heated debate with clear implications for European agricultural policies (see details in Merckx and Pereira in press). Within this scenario, the conservation of top scavengers, not only as charismatic species but also as key actors in complex ecological processes, imposes particular challenges. Vultures, as well as a panoply of facultative predatory-scavenger vertebrates, arthropods, and microorganisms, depend largely on the existence of ungulate and medium-size vertebrate carcasses, a resource that in natural conditions is unpredictable in space and time (i.e., by chance, see above). The importance of ecological processes linked to carcass decomposition and consumption has been historically neglected (DeVault 2003). Instead, carcasses have been considered undesirable and insanitary residuals whose common destination has been industrial destruction. Consequently, a key resource in European ecosystem functioning was sent to the incinerator following sanitary regulations dictated by an exaggerated precautionary principle (Donázar 2009b). Rewilding may now favour the increase of larger populations of wild ungulates as well as the expansion of large carnivores (see Chap. 4), which would contribute to the random nature of carcasses and uphold ecosystem functioning and community structures.

Other distinctive aspects of top scavengers, and vultures in particular, is that these species exploit landscapes at a scale much larger than humans do. Vultures' home ranges and foraging displacements may cover as many as hundreds of thousands of hectares. For instance, modern monitoring techniques based on GPS and satellite tracking have demonstrated continental-scale movements of individual birds (e.g. bearded vultures in Margalida et al. 2013; Egyptian vultures in Carrete et al. 2012; among others). This is the result of adaptations to searching for unpredictable resources (Hertel 1994; Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2014), originally ungulate herds moving across changing landscapes (Houston 1974), something that still occurs in modern Europe with transhumant livestock husbandries (i.e., movement of livestock between winter and summer pastures, Olea and Mateo 2009), but on a very limited basis today. Thus, vultures have space requirements that can scarcely be reduced to the small-scale of administrative limits prevailing in European landscapes. In this context the question that arises is how can we manage to fit vultures into the projected rewilded Europe? As mentioned above, recent studies related to vulture populations in the Spanish Pyrenees show that carcasses of wild ungulates are able to maintain vulture populations in the long-term (Margalida et al. 2011 and see above for details). However, the expansion of wild herbivores into the abandoned lands of many European mountains is already occurring and likely to increase in the future (see Chap. 8). However, to date, according to Margalida et al. (2011), although avian scavengers make large-scale seasonal movements from mountains to lowlands the recovery of wild ungulates in mountain areas would be insufficient to support the populations. At best, it is evident that the long-term viability of vulture populations restrained to mountain areas would be affected by constraints derived from small population size (Margalida et al. 2011; Donázar et al. 2009a). On the other hand, many healthy vulture populations thrive in very diverse lowland agrograzing systems where most of the carcasses are provided by extensive livestock and wild medium-sized prey (notably wild rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus) (Donázar et al. 1996b; Moreno-Opo et al. 2010; Carrete et al. 2007). Therefore, under the scenario of a future wilder Europe and in conjunction with the expansion of wild ungulates and predators, the encouragement of traditional extensive grazing should be prioritised, especially in those lowland humanized areas of agro-grazing systems where arrival of wild ungulates may be no possible.

Overall, the conservation of vultures and other avian scavengers requires a necessary equilibrium between the recovery of wild ungulates in remote (and rewilded) areas, the existence of traditional agro-grazing systems in lowland regions and, the modifications/adaptations of sanitary laws in order to allow the abandonment of livestock carcasses freely in the wild (even outside of protected and defined areas). Recent European regulations are opening the way for this approach and within this context, the maintenance of supplementary feeding stations (vulture restaurants) is not a desirable conservation strategy because of the negative population, community and ecosystem effects that appear to surpass the positive effects linked to the mere improvement of demographic parameters (see above for references). Therefore, this scenario represents a great opportunity to reclaim future conservation strategies considering community and ecosystem perspectives. New policies should focus on: (1) the conservation of foraging and breeding behaviour of hundreds of scavenger as well as the ecosystem restoring by promoting the availability of natural random carcasses; (2) highlighting the importance of the regulating services derived from those feeding behaviours such as the reduction of transmission of animal diseases; (3) the new ecosystem services not related directly to species conservation but that may imply greater incomes to local economies from ecotourism and associated with recreational activities in natural areas; and (4) the consideration of non-economic value that these species may provide such as the existence values and use them to educate society on conservation.

The scenario described thus far applies to those regions of Western Europe (the Iberian Peninsula, Southern France and other Mediterranean regions) where large scavenger populations have persisted (Donázar et al. 2009a). A totally different picture exists in central and Eastern Europe, where the populations of vultures and other carrion-eaters were virtually extirpated during the course of the twentieth century. There, passive rewilding of large regions probably will not lead to short or medium-term recovery of top scavenger/vulture populations and the associated scavenging processes because of the extremely low rate of spatial expansion of populations of these long-lived organisms that is explained by extreme natal philopatry. In this case, active measures like reintroduction are required and of course, the elimination of those limiting factors, mainly direct and indirect persecution, that once determined the populations' demise. Rewilding also considers the reintroduction of species and initial support with supplementary feeding stations. In this case, we suggest that those programs be based on rigorous scientific population viability studies and that food supplies, if necessary, are provided under careful adaptive management for greater effectiveness of rewilding conservation decisions (CortésAvizanda et al. 2010; McCarthy and Possingham 2007; Possingham et al. 2001)

Finally, while many mammal species and other vertebrates such as large ungulates and carnivores, may be viable in large mountain areas subjected to passive management (Fig. 5.7; and see details in Chap. 1), populations of flying organisms (covering large distances on a daily basis) would nevertheless require broader approaches dealing with both conservation aims and common policies in rewilded regions and in areas where traditional agro-grazing activities are maintained. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that top scavenger breeding in remote cliffs are providing key ecological services not only in high-mountain pasturelands but also in lowland grazing areas. These reflections suggest that new questions may arise along with new challenges, especially those related to how the maintenance of ecologically functional populations of large body-sized and long-lived organisms fits within the current rewilding concept (see also Chaps. 4 and 8). To attend to these targets and requirements effectively is to ensure the persistence of the alliance between humans and vultures that has allowed the survival of these charismatic birds for millennia.

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