Work to protect birds from dangers of French ski resorts is a success

Simple actions like attaching brightly coloured discs to electricity wires and ski lift cables is helping to prevent accidents

Black grouses dig shallow nests to semi-hibernate during winter - if they are damaged, it can mean death for the mountain birds
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A scheme to help preserve bird populations in skiing resorts has been a great success, says Sandrine Berthillot, of the Parc National de la Vanoise.

“This latest project was financed via the EU’s Birdski initiative, but we have been running similar projects for the last 20 years.”

The mountains account for around 30% of mainland France but are home to around 85% of the country’s mammals, amphibians and birds.

It is therefore vitally important to preserve the biodiversity of this habitat.

This is especially the case as French mountain regions become popular holiday resorts in summer as well as in winter.

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Ski resort infrastructure can be fatal to bird life.

Sometimes in flight, they do not see cables (i.e. phone and electricity wires, zip wires, cables supporting ski lifts) or safety netting, especially in foggy weather. So wires and cables have been equipped with brightly-coloured discs.

Brightly coloured disc hanging from a ski-lift cable
A coloured disc designed to protect birds, especially in foggy weather Pic: Berthillot

Birds of prey (vultures and eagles) as well as landfowl can be fatally disturbed by human activity.

Areas of safety

“We have therefore established ‘zones de tranquillité’ where species like black grouse can nest and hibernate undisturbed.”

This is increasingly important as skiers explore off-piste.

“In the beginning we marked out quite large zones but people did not respect them and we don’t have any official way of keeping people out of these zones. So now we mark out many more zones containing trees and undergrowth but they are small enough to ski round, and that works a lot better.”

A project involving chipping birds with GPS – enabling researchers to track their movements – showed that the birds do actually use the zones de tranquillité.

“These areas are important because black grouse hollow out shallow nests in the undergrowth where they semi-hibernate all winter. If these are damaged by someone skiing over them, it can be fatal for the grouse.”

A collective effort

The work is now set to continue and Sandrine is happy to say that it is a partnership with all those involved; tourist operators, ski resorts and local residents.

“We do a lot of work raising consciousness, and highlighting the importance of preserving the Alpine environment, and these days I think everyone agrees that we can all share the mountains.”

There are 17 ski resorts surrounding the Parc National de la Vanoise, and the Compagnie des Alpes – which runs La Plagne, Les Arcs, Tignes, Val d’Isère, Méribel, Les Menuires, Serre Chevalier, and Grand Massif – finance some of this work.

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They also install and monitor some of the necessary equipment.

“The Birdski project was a grand success, and the work will continue, probably with new funding under another name, because I think everyone involved understands its importance”, says Sandrine Berthillot.

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