A campaign against Griffon vultures is gathering pace in France after it was revealed that the carrion eaters had devoured the body of a 52-year-old woman who fell to her death in the Pyrenees. Major Didier Pericou of the gendarmerie said the woman had fallen down a 300-metre slope while taking a short cut walking with two friends. "There were only bones, clothes and shoes left," he told The Times. "They took 45 to 50 minutes to eat the body."

French farmers are now demanding the right to shoot the protected birds after attacks on sheep and cows. The birds no longer have their diet of carcasses because European health and safety regulations now force breeders to burn dead animals. The Pyrenees population of Griffon vultures has apparently been affected by an EC ruling that due to danger of BSE transmission, no dead animals must be left on the fields. This has critically lowered the food availability of the scavenging birds. Like other vultures, the Griffon is a scavenger, feeding mostly on carcasses of dead animals which it finds by soaring over open areas, often moving in flocks. The maximum lifespan recorded for a specimen kept in captivity is 41.4 years. Fear of vultures has been growing in recent years. Le Nouvel Observateur reports of 'mutant vultures', with one woman saying that a group of the birds, whose wingspans can exceed seven feet, hovered near to where her children were sitting. One farmer, Alain Larralde, reported seeing a group of vultures attack and start eating an adult cow. There have also been alleged sightings of live animals being carried off. "You can't imagine what it is like to see an animal eaten alive," Mr Larralde was reported to have said. Over the past few months, there have been 42 claims for compensation from farmers who say they have had livestock taken by the birds. The vultures, which have evolved to eat carrion and not tackle live prey, may have changed their habits due to starvation. According to a New Scientist report, there have been cases of vultures grabbing the bodies of shot animals before the hunters can reach them. "We are seeing three-figure vulture flocks over Belgium and Holland. These birds are fanning out across Europe in search of food," Grahame Madge, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' European bird of prey expert told the Mail.