UN Wildlife Meeting Pushes to Make Power Lines Safer for Birds

(25.11.2011) International Reports Address Impact of Power Lines on Migratory Birds, Offering Solutions to Avoid Collisions and Electrocution

Two new international reports on the conflict between migratory birds and power lines in the African-Eurasian region are being presented to delegates at a UN wildlife conference taking place 20-25 November 2011 in Bergen, Norway.

Installation of bird flight diverters by helicopter on a high voltage power line in Germany © RWE Rhein-Ruhr Netzservice
Installation of bird flight diverters by helicopter on a high voltage power line in Germany © RWE Rhein-Ruhr Netzservice

The two documents, The Review of the Conflict Between Migratory Birds and Electricity Power Grids in the African-Eurasian Region and the Guidelines on How to Avoid or Mitigate the Impact of Electricity Power Grids on Migratory Birds in the African-Eurasian Region will be reviewed by representatives from close to 100 governments and several key wildlife conservation organizations attending the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), an international wildlife treaty administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Power lines constitute one of the major causes of unnatural death for birds both through electrocution and fatal collisions. At end of 2010 there were 70.5 million kilometers of power lines throughout the world, constructed with minimal consideration for their environmental impact. This is expected to increase to 76.2 million kilometers by the end of 2015.

The review shows that in the African-Eurasian region alone, hundreds of thousands of birds die annually from electrocution and tens of millions of birds from collision with power lines. In general, large birds seem to be more affected.

For some large, slow reproducing bird species which migrate across this region, such as pelicans, storks, flamingos, birds of prey, cranes, bustards and owls, the death toll could possibly lead to population declines and/or local or regional extinction.

In South Africa, for example, 12% of Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, and 11-15% of Ludwig’s Bustards are dying annually in collisions with a growing number of power lines.

According to the review, hot spots for electrocution are especially found in open habitats lacking natural perches or nesting trees for the birds, such as steppes, deserts and wetlands.

Bird collisions, on the other hand, occur in every habitat type in the region, with hotspots, for example, located in areas where large numbers of birds congregate, such as near water bodies or in migration corridors.

The international review presents a current overview of the existing research and corrective measures undertaken by some countries and electricity power companies in the region to avoid bird mortality from collisions and electrocutions by power lines.

The guidelines, on the other hand, contain a set of concrete recommendations for governments, electric power companies and conservation organisations on how to avoid and reduce the impact of electricity power grids on birds.

“The international guidelines present a number of appropriate legislative and policy actions and some creative technical measures on how to mitigate and reduce the vast number of unnatural bird mortalities caused by electricity power grids,” said CMS Executive Secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema.

While the scope of the study was to review the situation across Europe, parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the measures highlighted in the guidelines can be applied globally.

In northern Europe, for example, all low and medium voltage distribution lines have been placed underground in the Netherlands and similar measures are also being carried out in parts of Belgium, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany and Norway.

“Our experience from Norway is that there are various measures that can reduce the risks of collision and electrocution, such as the use of underground cables, removal of the top line and route selection, and that they are working,” said Erik Solheim, Minister of the Environment and International Development of Norway.

Other less expensive measures include the installation of state-of-the-art technical solutions for existing structures such as insulation of dangerous electric parts of the lines, the installation of bird-friendly perching and nesting devices as well as the installation of markers or bird flight diverters in overhead wires.

"The relative lack of electrical infrastructure across the African continent to date provides an opportunity to avoid the mistakes made elsewhere when new infrastructure is constructed. In this respect, the guidelines are very timely and can make a significant conservation impact," said Jon Smallie from the Endangered Wildlife Trust of South-Africa, one of the authors of the guidelines report.

“National authorities, electricity companies and organizations involved in bird conservation and research should use these guidelines as a first step to address the serious problem of bird mortality caused by electrocution and collision and work together to also better plan the locations of future power lines and jointly identify critical locations where existing power lines should be made safer for birds,” said Marco Barbieri, Acting Executive Secretary of the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), a specialized treaty concluded under CMS.

“In the coming year, the Norwegian Government will spend 30 million kroner to reduce the overall threat on the highly endangered Eurasian Eagle Owl. Power lines pose a significant threat to the owl in Norway,” added Mr. Solheim.

According to the review, electrocution is considered to be the most important mortality factor for the Eagle Owl and possibly the main reason for the decline of the population.

“This may also help to avoid electrocution of other species. We have a high focus on this topic in Norway and our experience is that these measures work but still there is a lot more to do,” said Mr. Solheim.

 “Electrocution of birds is not just a conservation issue. It also has economic and financial consequences, as power interruptions and the resulting need for reparations from outages are often caused by bird electrocutions,” said Ms. Mrema.

“The Convention on Migratory Species along with its specialized treaties dedicated to the conservation of birds, such as AEWA and the Raptors’ agreement have an important role to play in bringing the different actors and perspectives together. As the international review and the guidelines show, there are already some lessons learned. But there is also a lot more we can do to address this growing conflict between power lines and birds,” added Ms. Mrema.

The review and guidelines were commissioned by the UNEP/AEWA Secretariat to an international research consortium consisting of Bureau Waardenburg, Boere Conservation Consultancy (both from the Netherlands), the Endangered Wildlife Trust (South-Africa) and STRIX from Portugal.

The international review and the guidelines were made possible through the support from AEWA’s cooperation partner RWE Rhein-Ruhr Netzservice, a company of the German energy supplier RWE. The company has developed a method of fitting preventive “bird-diverters” to high-voltage powerlines in Germany and other European countries using a helicopter as a way to try to reduce the collision of large birds with power lines.

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