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Ski Resorts where It’s More Than Just Skiers Going Downhill

Many of us enjoy our winter skiing trips. Skiing is enormous fun and enables us to spend time in the great outdoors. The beautiful scenery is always a pleasure to behold and the sport is a great way to stay fit and active. However, as with just about any form of human intervention, skiing has a detrimental effect on nature.

Ski Piste Construction

The establishment of a ski piste has a serious impact on the local natural environment and causes enormous changes to the landscape. These changes are difficult to see when snow is on the ground but much of the upper soil horizons are removed during the construction process. Machinery is used to smooth underlying rock and soil to create suitable slopes for skiing and to facilitate the use of artificial snow.

The removal of grass cover in the construction process impacts the diversity of ground dwelling arthropods and this will affect birds which feed on invertebrates. In the summer, recently created ski pistes are merely bare areas of ground. Over time, the grassland returns but there is evidence to suggest that birds are still negatively affected by the presence of the ski resort.

Ski resorts, Avian Diversity and Proliferation

A recent study looked at bird life around new pistes, pistes with recovered grassland and areas in the same region which had not been developed for skiing. The richness of species and abundance of birds were found to be significantly higher on recovered pistes (where grassland had returned) than on recently constructed pistes. However, the levels were still lower than those on the natural grassland which had never been developed.

The figures suggest that the return of the grass to the pistes promotes a partial but not a complete recovery of bird populations. This may be because the vegetation present on the recovered pistes is different to that which was originally present. Further research into this issue is required.

The Implications of a Delayed Melt

Ski resorts pose problems to birds beyond the changes to the vegetation. The snow cover at the resorts is very different to naturally occurring snow cover. Snow making, mechanical compression and compression by skiers means that the spring melt is delayed. This impacts the vegetative cycle and arthropod abundance.

Species such as Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus), Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and Snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis) are dependent on invertebrates for food during the spring and summer months. But their availability is likely to be affected by vegetation structure and snow cover. The effect of snow melt (including artificial snow) on plants and invertebrates, both on and off pistes, and consequently the feeding ecology of high altitude grassland birds, should be a priority for further research.


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