Vosges birds to ‘recuperate in Norway’ as part of French trial

The plan is aiming to help the emblematic birds, proponents say - but critics say it is a ‘textbook example of what not to do’

The western capercaillie is the largest of the grouse species and emblematic of the Vosges department in eastern France

A department in eastern France is to send 40 western capercaillie birds to ‘recuperate’ in Norway, before reintroducing them to France, in a bid to improve the birds’ population.

The Vosges (Grand Est) prefecture authorised the experiment on April 15. The bird is emblematic of the region - which spans the Vosges massif mountain range - but is under threat due to climate change and growing tourism. 

The birds will be sent to Norway to reach good health, before being released back into the Vosges massif range once they have ‘recuperated’.

Called ‘grand tétras’ in French, the birds are typically called ‘western capercaillies’ in English (and sometimes also wood grouse). They are the largest of the grouse species, and can reach weights of up to 15-16 kg. The males are almost twice the size of the females.

The word ‘capercaillie’ comes from the Scottish Gaelic ‘capall coille’, meaning ‘horse of the woodland’.

Although not considered to be of concern on the IUCN Red List - a global list of the conservation and extinction risk of species - the birds’ population is declining across Europe, with its habitats threatened due to climate change and the effects of human activity.

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Trial period

The process will be repeated each year until 2029, in a trial period to determine whether it is helping the birds or not.

“At regular committee meetings, we will be able to ascertain whether or not we should continue, or whether [the initiative] is a failure, in which case the situation would be very serious,” said Vosges prefect, Valérie Michel-Moreaux, to FranceInfo.

Controversy: ‘A textbook case of what not to do’?

The initiative has been controversial within the department itself. Two separate scientific councils raised concerns, and said that global warming means that the area in France is no longer a good habitat for the bird long-term.

Vincent Munier, a specialist animal photographer in Vosges who has been photographing the species for 30 years, has condemned the plan as wishful thinking “wizardry” that would not work.

Speaking at a public consultation on the issue, he said: “We no longer have the environment, we no longer have the harsh winters, and we have extremely developed tourism. 

“The distribution zone of the capercaillie is moving further and further north. I think this will be a textbook case of what not to do in the future. It's cruelly lacking in humility.”

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But Ms Michel-Moreaux defended the plan, saying: “The species can tolerate climates that are not exclusively those of the boreal arc [northern countries bordering the Arctic], since capercaillie can also be found as far away as Greece."