Latest Rhodope Mountains fallow deer release enhances local circle of life

February 14, 2020

As part of the long-term restoration of deer populations in the Rhodope Mountains, the latest reintroduction will further support the area’s endangered vulture species – as well as other scavengers and carnivores – by revitalising food chains and creating a healthier, more naturally balanced ecosystem.

Two recent releases of fallow deer in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area will further support the closing of the so-called “circle of life”.


Closing the circle

One of the core objectives of rewilding is to reinstate natural processes, such as the free movement of rivers, natural grazing and predation. In this regard, the reintroduction of missing species is often required in order to restore the full range of these processes and create healthier, more resilient, fully functioning ecosystems.

Such a transformation is not only better for wild nature, but means these ecosystems are more capable of delivering nature-based services to people, such as clean water, flood protection, and climate change mitigation through carbon drawdown.

Two recent releases of fallow deer in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area in Bulgaria typify this restoration dynamic, with 12 animals reintroduced to the Byala River Natura 2000 area by the local rewilding team in January, and a further 14 earlier this month. As part of the ongoing European Commission-funded LIFE Vultures project, these reintroductions will further support the area’s endangered vulture species (as well as other scavengers, and carnivores such as wolves) by boosting the availability of wild prey and carcasses, and thereby helping to close the so-called “circle of life“.


The increasing griffon vulture population of the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area is now sustained significantly (around 60% of the time) by the carcasses of wolf kills. Restoring food chains in this area is a flagship project of Rewilding Europe, supported by the European Commission (through LIFE Vultures).
The increasing griffon vulture population in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area is now sustained significantly by the carcasses of wolf kills. Restoring food chains in this area is a flagship project of Rewilding Europe, supported by the European Commission (through the LIFE Vultures project).
Jeroen Helmer / ARK Nature


Part of the process

The February fallow deer release was the final one of this winter season, with restocking activities expected to resume in the autumn. The latest reintroductions mean that over the last five years more than 400 fallow deer and 50 red deer have been released by the local rewilding team in the Rhodope Mountains, in cooperation with the local hunting associations of Kardzhali, Harmanli and Krumovgrad.

“These efforts have already proven successful in terms of enhancing local food chains,” says Rewilding Rhodopes rewilding officer Stefan Avramov. “The griffon vultures which breed in the area regularly feed on the carcasses of deer following their predation by wolves.”


Viable and growing populations

Griffon vulture, Gyps fulvus, and Black vulture, Aegypius monachus, SPAIN/CAMPANARIOS DE AZÁBA RESERVE, SALAMANCA PROVINCE, CASTILLA Y LEÓN Vulture watching has become increasingly popular and can now be done at several sites in Spain and Portugal, where you can see these amazing birds up close from purpose-built hides. This photo is from a hide in the Campanarios de Azába reserve, run by Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre and a part of the Rewilding Europe initiative. For the first time in European history, live, wild vultures can be worth serious money for the land owners.The comeback of the griffon vulture in Spain is a great conservation success story – from 7,000 pairs in 1980 to approx. 18,000 in 2009. Griffons now breed in 16 European countries and have recently been seen in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. But it’s not all good news. Each year, around 1,000 vultures are killed in Spain as a result of collisions with poorly placed wind turbines. EU veterinary regulations also mean that fewer dead domestic animals are left out in the open, and this has spelled disaster for all four European vulture species. Particularly in Greece and the Balkans, vultures still also fall victim to some shepherds bad old habit of poisoning carcasses to kill wolves – inevitably, all other scavengers then die off too. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders of Europe
Griffon vultures in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area regularly feed on red and fallow deer killed by wolves.
Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Red and fallow deer populations both need to contain at least 50 adult animals to be viable. Restocking efforts have now established three viable and growing populations of fallow deer, and one rapidly growing red deer population (the last red deer release was in 2018).  This autumn the rewilding team will conclude restocking efforts with the release of another twenty fallow deer, from which point the populations of both red and fallow deer will be allowed to grow naturally.

“These latest releases align with the rewilding vision for the Rhodope Mountains, which would see this hugely biodiverse area regulated by natural processes, with wildlife species – including vultures – thriving in more natural densities,” explains Avramov. “As part of this vision, local people will increasingly benefit through enhanced nature-based economic opportunities and nature-based services.”


Keeping track

To support restoration efforts in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area, two newly released female fallow deer have been fitted with GPS collars. Satellite tracking will help the local rewilding team learn more about the distribution and movements of the deer, and the threats that they face (such as poaching), thereby boosting measures to protect the species. The data that is gathered will also reveal the animals’ favourite resting and feeding sites in the core rewilding area.

Starting this month and continuing into March, the Rewilding Rhodopes team will monitor and count red deer and fallow deer populations across the entire rewilding area. “With populations of deer increasing every year, through both restocking and natural growth, we hope to see more evidence of vultures scavenging on deer carcasses,” says Avramov.


Local support

The fallow deer was once widespread in Bulgaria, but was probably hunted to extinction in the country in the early Middle Ages, with population restoration beginning in the middle of the twentieth century. The eastern RhodopeMountains themselves could maintain thousands of fallow and red deer if populations were allowed to grow naturally.

The Byala River Natura 2000 area was selected as a site for fallow deer population restoration due to its suitable habitat, the permanent presence of black vultures (for roosting and feeding), and the willingness of local hunting groups to assist with the recovery of the species.


Cross-border project

All fallow and red deer releases in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area are carried out under the framework of the European Commission-funded LIFE Vultures project, with additional support provided by Fondation Segré. Starting in 2016, this five-year project was developed by Rewilding Europe, in collaboration with the Rewilding Rhodopes Foundation, the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB), and a range of other partners.

Focusing on the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area, as well as a section of the Rhodope Mountains in northern Greece, the aim of the project is to support the recovery and further expansion of local black and griffon vulture populations, mainly by improving the availability of natural prey (such as fallow and red deer), and by reducing mortality through factors such as poaching, poisoning and collisions with power lines.

“As part of the LIFE Vultures project, the Rewilding Rhodopes team has already taken huge steps  towards rebuilding а stable deer fallow deer population in the Bulgarian Rhodopes,” says Stefan Avramov. “We are now looking forward to future successful collaboration with our Greek colleagues, as we work to restore the species throughout the cross-border area.”


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