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WILDLIFE

Spain’s newest export to France: Vultures

It is well known that France imports Spain’s wine, its jamon and its olive oil, but now Spain is sending a rather different cargo over the Pyrenees to its northern neighbour.

Spain's newest export to France: Vultures
Black vultures at the rehabilitation centre before being transferred to France. Photo: Vulture Conservation Foundation

Spain is helping to reintroduce France’s population of black vultures, almost a century after they were poisoned to extinction.

Seven black vultures (Aegypius monachus) are being transported this weekend from Spain to new homes in France where they will be released into the wild after being fitted with a satellite tracker system.

The birds have been sent from the regions of Extremadura and Andalusia which currently boast the biggest population of the scavenging birds in Europe.

"Spain currently holds 90 percent of Vultures in all of Europe so our population is healthy enough to send some to France to help theirs," explained Dr Jóse Tavares, the director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation, which oversees the project.

The birds that are to be sent from France are those which have been rescued from the wild and nursed back to health in rehabilitation centres.

Photo of a black vulture at the rehabilitation center before transfer, courtesy of Vulture Conservation Foundation

"They are about a year old and are birds that became too weak to fly. A vulture can survive for about two weeks without eating but these young birds, because of their inexperience went out to look for food, couldn’t find it and then became too weak to get off the ground again," Tavares said in an interview with The Local.

"So we take them into a rehabilitation centre, build up their strength and then instead of releasing them in Spain we send them to France," he said.

Vulture species suffered during the 20th century when huge numbers were killed off by poison left out to kill other predators such as bears, wolves and foxes.

"The vultures either ate the bait or they ate the carcasses of those that did and the species started to disappear," Tavares explained.

Photo of a black vulture in flight courtesy of Vulture Conservation Foundation

Tavares accepts that they are not the easiest animal to get the public excited about.

"Vultures have a bad image but actually they are extremely useful. They don’t kill anything and in fact are the cleaners of the countryside," he emphasized.

The head of the conservation charity explained what huge success Spain has had in bringing the species back from the brink of extinction.

"In the 1980s there were less than 250 breeding pairs and now we have more than 2,000 in parts of Spain, the most prolific in Madrid, Extremadura and Andalusia," he said.

So a project was born to share the vultures with Spain's northern neighbour and there are now 40 breeding pairs in southern France.

"We are confident that within a couple of years the black vulture population of France will be self-sustainable and then we can extend the project elsewhere – to the Balkans," said Tavares.

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WINE

Uphill battle: Spain’s wine growers forced to adapt to climate change

For over a century, Joaquin Gay de Montella Estany's family produced wine in Spain's Mediterranean region of Catalonia, but the effects of climate change have pushed them to seek higher ground.

Uphill battle: Spain's wine growers forced to adapt to climate change
Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, forcing Spanish wine producers to adapt. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

Now their Torre del Veguer winery also has vineyards at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains — at an altitude of nearly 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) — where temperatures are cooler.

It’s one of the ways in which Spain’s wine producers are trying to adapt, as a warmer climate advances the harvest season and makes the need for more heat-tolerant grape varieties greater.

In searing August heat, farm workers pick the white grapes by hand at a vineyard with sea views in Penedes, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the city of Barcelona.

Higher temperatures have brought the grape harvest forward by 10 to 15 days over the past decade, said Gay de Montella Estany, who owns the ecological winery.

“We have to harvest at the start of August when the heat is the most intense,” he told AFP.

So in 2008, the company moved part of its production to Bolvir, a village in the Pyrenees near the French border.

Speedy ripening

With a total of 961,000 hectares (2.4 million acres) of vines, Spain has the largest area of vineyards in the world, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine says.

It is the third biggest wine producer behind Italy and France.

Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, according to the national weather office, Aemet.

And wine producers have seen an impact, as the timing of the harvest is crucial.

An employee tends to the grapevines at the Torres vineyard at a 950-metre altitude in Tremp near Lleida in the Catalan Pyrenees. 

Higher average temperatures speed up the ripening of the grapes, which leads to lower acidity and increased sugars in the fruit.

This yields higher alcohol levels in the wine and also alters other compounds in grapes that affect aroma and flavour.

Grapes must be picked quickly to avoid an excessive alcohol content.

“Essentially these grapes have not fully ripened in the right way,” said Fernando Zamora, a professor in the oenology department at Rovira I Virgili University in Tarragona.

‘Absurd’

The Familia Torres winery, one of Spain’s largest producers, embraced higher elevation more than 20 years ago, despite facing scepticism at the time.

The company, which has grown from a small family business in the late 19th century, began planting grapes in Tremp, 160 kilometres northeast of its Vilafranca de Penedes base, in 1998.

Grapes for making wine had never been grown before at higher altitudes in this region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

“Farmers in the area thought it was absurd. They thought grapes would not mature,” said Xavier Admella, who is in charge of the farm located at an altitude of 950 metres.

“Climate change has proven us right,” he added, as workers set up nets to protect the vines from hail which is much more common along mountain ranges.

Ancient grape varieties are treated in vitro at the Torres vineyard lab in Vilafranca del Penedes near Barcelona.

New techniques

In Tremp, temperatures are almost 10 degrees Celsius cooler than at sea level, Miguel A. Torres, president of the Familia Torres winery, said.

That makes it possible to grow grape varieties to produce white wines “that still have very good acidity levels”, he added.

The company, which exports to 150 countries, also has a laboratory where it revives grape strains that have almost disappeared.

One of them which performs well at high altitudes has already been planted in Tremp.

But the fight to adapt has a stiff price tag.

“The future is complicated,” Torres said, adding the wine sector had asked for aid from both the Spanish government and European Union.

Gay de Montella Estany agrees.

He predicts that Spain’s wine sector will have to go on planting at higher altitudes and “look for grape varieties that ripen later” to survive.

He does not rule out that some parts of the country, especially in the south, will one day no longer be suitable for wine production.

Not everyone is as pessimistic, though.

“Climate change is leading many wineries to get their act together and learn how to make wine, not like our grandparents did, but by looking for new techniques,” university professor Zamora said.

“And wines are now much better than they were a few years ago.”

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