• Caitlin Kennedy

The Flora and Fauna of The Vanoise National Park

If you look up to the side of the mountains not touched by strings of ski lifts and leaveyour gaze long enough on a rock, quite often, that rock will morph into a living,breathing mountain goat. This is one of the jobs of the Vanoise National Park Guards; spotting the extremely well camouflaged animals clinging to the sides of the slopesas part of their ongoing conservation work.Spend a little time with these guards andyou realise how in tune they are with thesurrounding flora and fauna, spotting thetwitches of an animal far, far away from their viewing point.

We are lucky enough to be living right on the cusp of an area of great ecological importance, the Vanoise National Park, as well as several smaller Nature Reserves, including the slopes of the Bailletaz area. The Vanoise Park was the first ever French national park to be created back in 1963. It connects to the Grand Paradiso Park on the Italian side and together they cover an area of 1250 km2, making the largest national park in the Alps. The two parks were originally conceived in order to protect ibex, which had been brought to near extinction and were being reintroduced to alpine areas. In fact all Alpine Ibex living today descend from one herd that were encouraged to breed in the Grand Paradiso region back in the 60s. Because of this, they are all genetically very similar.

Most weeks from now until the end of the season, it is possible to go and observe the animals above the Pont St Charles Walking Path with the help and guidance of the Vanoise Park Guards. It is a fascinating experience to hear about the work of the guardians of the park, and of course to get a closer look at the animals that give the Vanoise Park their emblem, the ibex, as well as their smaller and less horny cousins, the chamois.

I was interested to find out about how both species cope with the harshness of winter in the mountains. Contrary to what might seem logical, the animals move to steeper slopes in winter, of 30–45° angles as these are more likely to have small caves and overhangs for shelter. These faces are also more likely to avalanche, uncovering the vegetation below. In fact, it was on one of these grassy patches that we saw our first sign of life through the lens of a telescope.

It was focused in on a lone male ibex with colossal horns, nibbling away at the scrub on the ground. When eventually he raised his heavy head, we managed to capture the picture below. After seeing this photo, Benoît of Radio Val d’Isere, knowingly nodded his head and told me this was Isidore, well known to the people of Le Fornet. Ibex aren’t generally subject to predation and often live to around 20 years. When males get very old, they generally remove themselves from their social group and become more solitary. Isidore is nearing the end of his life so can be recognised by the locals due to his lonesome behaviour.

Many of the animals in the park have tracking devices attached to them so that their movements can be followed by conservationists. In the winter, it is actually easier to spot a lot of the larger species, so that is when a count takes place. Other than that, education about the work of the wardens is a large part of the winter’s work. In summer, walking path and sign maintenance is carried out by the Park employees which is especially important after a winter with heavy snowfall like last year.

So, what does an average day look like for a Vanoise Guard? Every day is different. The main aim is to keep the region as tranquil and untouched as possible for the plants and animals that call this Park their home. The Bailetta Nature Reserve is special because it covers an elevation gain of 1000m in a small area, so has a large range of mountainous plants and animals. Together with the Sassiere Nature Reserve just over the crest of the mountain, the two contain the entirety of France’s population of the Seslérie ovale plant, which you’ll spot in the summer as these plants are fenced off from walkers.

Occasionally, the work of the wardens requires a more hands-on approach. At the end of January, a cormorant (large black sea bird) got more than a little lost, arriving in Val d’Isère, dishevelled and in distress. It was brought into the tourist office by a worried passer-by and a park warden picked it up and took it somewhere to recuperate before it was X-rayed the following day down in Grenoble. After being pronounced well enough to fly, the bird was released in the valley.

Although this particular incident was a little out of the ordinary, more regular occurrences of bird injuries are caused by wild birds flying into windows. This was the case with this tinyEurasian Pygmy Owl, who was taken in with a hematoma to the wing and injuries in both eyes. The Vanoise Park wardens recuperated her back to full health and earlier this week, she was released in the woods next to Le Face.

Check out the Vanoise Park website for more informationhttp://www.vanoise-parcnational.fr/fr

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