Earlier this month, we shared an update on the breeding results of all four vulture species in France. Today, we look at the main threats affecting vultures in the country. Which conservation measures are being implemented to mitigate mortality causes for the Cinereous Vulture, the Griffon Vulture and the Bearded Vulture in France?
Griffon Vulture: Avian influenza was the main mortality cause in 2022
In 2022, the Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) population has decreased across all French regions, compared with the previous year. From the 59 Griffon Vultures that lost their lives in 2022, 70% fell victim to avian influenza (LPO Grands Causses, 2023). Avian influenza (AI), also known as bird flu, is a highly contagious viral disease that affects both domestic and wild birds. The virus is spread through direct contact with secretions from infected birds, through faeces or contaminated food and water. In the United States of America, for instance, the highly pathogenic Avian Influenza viroses (HPAI) is threatening the conservation of Condors.
Other causes of mortality of Griffon Vultures in France include shooting (1), collision with wind turbines (3), electrocution (2) and poisoning (1). In 2023, it seems that the number of breeding pairs in the Grands Causses was lower, but it is too early to understand if the decrease represents real mortality or if the birds moved to another area to breed.
Increasing food availability for the Griffon Vulture
In many areas, there is high seasonal variation in food availability for the Griffon Vulture and other vulture species due to livestock transhumance between lowlands and mountain areas. For instance, between December and May, there is a low number of carcasses available, compared to the summer months. When food requirements are not met, feeding stations play an important role, providing the minimum required for the Griffon Vultures to thrive and successfully rear their chicks.
- French Pyrenees: 1793 tons of carcasses are available annually (most of it depends on livestock dying during the summer months); There are 53 active feeding stations: 25 Pyrénees Atlantiques; no stations in Haute-Pyrénées and Haute Garonne; 1 station potentially being created in Ariège; 23 active stations in Aude and 5 active stations in Pyrénées-Orientales and there is a project to create a new one.
- Massif Central: 126 active feeding stations and all livestock herders are satisfied by the services provided by vultures across the area.
- PreAlps: 3 active feeding stations (Baronnies, Vercors and Verdon), which receive between 83-90 tons per year.
- Greater Alps: there are no feeding stations. However, in the summer there are around 20.000 carcasses of cattle, resulting from natural mortality in mountain pastures, which provides a good source of food for the Griffon Vulture.
Read more about the conservation efforts that brought back the Griffon Vulture to France, the first-ever successful reintroduction project of big raptors.
Main factors threatening the Cinereous Vulture in France
The Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) went extinct in France over 100 years ago. Following the great success of the Griffon vulture reintroduction, conservationists launched a reintroduction project in the early 1990s focusing on the Grands Causses to bring this magnificent species back. The first breeding in the wild happened in 1996, 90 years after the last known breeding in France. The estimated population is of 53 breeding pairs, according to the latest report on estimates for the five European vulture species, published by the VCF (Vulture Conservation Foundation) in 2022.
In France, the main threats affecting Cinereous Vulture populations are electrocution and poisoning. In December 2021, two Cinereous Vultures were poisoned by carbofuran, a strong pesticide with a lethal effect on wildlife. The lack of legal actions to prosecute wildlife (poisoning) crimes endangers many birds and other species in France.
Another cause of mortality is linked to game waste, especially resulting from wild boar hunts. Cases of death by collision were recorded, in areas where game waste was deposited close to power lines. However, the major threat of these carcasses (or remains) is the risk of poisoning from lead ammunition. In February this year, the use of lead ammunition was forbidden in and around EU wetlands. A total phase-out is possible, but until then, it is extremely important to work with hunters on the transition to non-lead alternatives.
The National Action Plan for the Bearded Vulture in France
Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) were once found across the mountains of southern Europe, but over the course of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the population of this vulture crashed, disappearing from much of its range as a result of the decrease of wild herbivores, changes in farming practices and persecution by people. Currently, thanks to ongoing reintroduction efforts in the French Pyrenees, Alps and the Massif Central, there are 76 breeding pairs in France, according to VCF’s report.
In France, the National Action Plan for the Bearded Vulture was finalised in October 2022. The evaluation report of the previous Action Plan is yet to be published. Progress has been made regarding the objectives to restore the connectivity between the Alpine and Pyrenean populations, increase the total number of breeding pairs and restore genetic diversity. The evaluation process highlighted three weaker points, which will be approached within the new Action Plan: long-distance dispersal of released birds; poisoning events; and the vulnerability of the Corsican population. Read about the LIFE GypRescue Project and learn how we are working together with several partners to ensure the survival of Bearded Vultures in Corsica.
Mitigating threats for Bearded Vultures in France
In the Alps and the Pyrenees, some specific actions are planned to reduce the impact of human activities:
- Assessment and mitigation of collision risk with ski cables and with powerlines;
- Collaboration with the army to limit the number of helicopter flights;
- Analysis of the new threat posed by the use of leisure drones in the French mountains;
- Collaboration with climbers to limit disturbance;
- Limit disturbance linked to forestry practices around occupied nests (DREAL/ONF);
- Anti-poisoning actions are also a priority, such as the creation of dog-units, capacity building for environmental police officers and improvement of the ecotoxicology expertise in French labs.
To protect Bearded Vultures during the breeding season, the French government declared “Areas of Major Sensitivity” (ZMS in French, Zones de Sensibilité Majeure). As the species breeds in mountain cliffs, where several human activities often take place. The aim of the ZMS is to inform mountain users about the susceptibility of these areas and thus prevent potential anthropogenic disturbances and promote coexistence.
LIFE GypAct: restoring the Bearded Vulture metapopulation between the Alps and the Pyrenees
Within the new project LIFE GypAct, co-financed by the EU’s LIFE Programme, that follows the successful LIFE GypConnect project, threat mitigation and capacity building actions with the Wildlife Crime Academy are planned. During the course of the project, 60 Bearded Vultures will be reintroduced to strengthen the metapopulation between the Pyrenees and the Alps and threat mitigation actions will be implemented across South-eastern France and the Pre-Alps. Working with local government agencies and other organisations, our partners will:
- Insulate and secure 20 km of power lines to prevent deaths from electrocution in the most sensitive areas for the population, which have already been identified within the LIFE GypConnect project
- Implement actions to increase knowledge and information about collisions with wind turbines in wind farms
- Work with local hunters to promote the use of lead-free ammunition and thus, reduce the risk of poisoning;
- Mobilise an anti-poison dog unit
- Direct awareness-raising campaigns among farmers to prevent the use of illegal poison baits, that can directly or indirectly intoxicate Bearded Vultures and many other species
These results come from four days of different meetings aimed at summarising status and conservation actions for the four vulture species in France:
- Comité de pilotage du Plan National d’Actions en faveur du Gypaète barbu
- Comité de pilotage du Plan National d’Actions en faveur du Vautour moine
- Comité de pilotage du Plan National d’Actions en faveur du Percnoptère d’Egypte
- Comité de pilotage du Plan National d’Actions en faveur du Vautour fauve et des activités d’élevage
The meetings were organised by the ‘Direction régionale de l’environnement, de l’aménagement et du logement (DREAL) Nouvelle Aquitaine’ and they were held from the 30 January to 2 February in the buildings of the DREAL Occitanie in Montpellier.