Project aims to protect birds put at risk by skiers in Alps

Thirty-six ski resorts in the French Alps have signed up to a project to conserve “emblematic” mountain birds which are being put in danger by people going off-piste.

5 August 2020
Skiing can endanger such wild birds as black grouse, the rock ptarmigan or bearded vultureSkiing can endanger such wild birds as black grouse, the rock ptarmigan or bearded vulture
By Connexion Journalist

Protecting wildlife

Organisers of the “Birdski” project, a partnership between the Vanoise national park and the resorts, found that such practices, as well as some skiing equipment on the slopes, are endangering birds of prey such as the bearded vulture, or mountain wildfowl, including black grouse.

Eva Aliacar, from the Parc National de la Vanoise, said most people do not realise how disruptive skiing is to wildlife. “As off-piste skiing increases, birds which spend part of their lives on the ground are chased out of their habitats. Visitors post on social media that they saw black grouse rush out of bushes ahead of them when skiing off-piste, and how beautiful it was, but don’t realise the damage they are doing.”

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Surviving the winter

Skiing can endanger such wild birds as black grouse, the rock ptarmigan or bearded vulture
Skiing can endanger such wild birds as black grouse, the rock ptarmigan or bearded vulture

In common with other species, including the bearded vulture, golden eagle and rock ptarmigan, black grouse have to survive the mountain winters with very little food. They therefore need to use as little energy as possible. Escaping from skiers can mean they do not have enough energy to live until spring. In the case of the grouse, which build igloos for the winter, once chased away, they often do not return to their nests and have insufficient energy to build new ones. 

Adapting ski lift cables to be more bird-friendly

Birdski is working with lift operators to equip cables with high-visibility bird-markers.
Birdski is working with lift operators to equip cables with high-visibility bird-markers.

Ski lift cables are another hazard: birds often do not see them until it is too late to stop flying into them. Birdski is working with lift operators to equip cables with high-visibility bird-markers. Many grouse have been fitted with GPS transmitters so scientists can track movements and identify their habitat.

The project also aims to identify sensitive areas of woodland and prevent people skiing through them by planting more undergrowth, installing markers and giving out information. “We find that when people understand why certain areas are out of bounds, they respect the rules,” said Ms Aliacar. “With our ‘Be Part of the Mountain’ programme, we do a lot of awareness-raising, educating people about the impact of winter sports on wildlife.”

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Guidelines for visitors

Skiing practices are endangering birds of prey, but there are ways to help.
Skiing practices are endangering birds of prey, but there are ways to help.

Guidelines include not pursuing animals, not approaching them, not disturbing animals with young – it can make adults abandon their offspring – and in the winter avoiding areas where birds and animals might be wintering (for more, see vanoise-parcnational.fr).

The story of Piero, the rescued vulture

A young bearded vulture that went travelling and ended up lost near Tours in the Indre-et-Loire suffering weakness and hypothermia – and having swallowed pieces of wire – was rescued and released back home to the Alps. NGO the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) says a member of the public found the bird and reported it to the authorities. It was sent to the Hegalaldia wildlife hospital in the Basque country for tests and rehab. Genetic testing was done with the help of the VCF to find out where it came from – and they pinpointed its home and even its name.

The bird, known to conservationists in the Alps, is named Piero, a male that hatched in the Haute-Savoie last year. Piero was released back to the Vercors park, near its birthplace, fitted with a GPS tag. You can see where it was yesterday at tinyurl.com/y6dgzzfq. It has now gone travelling again and was heading for the Dordogne.

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