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On Environmental Lines - the impact of the LGV

On Environmental Lines - the impact of the LGV

Massive infrastructure projects inevitably have environmental impacts and with some 300km of new track, the Tours–Bordeaux Ligne à Grande Vitesse (LGV) has provoked controversy since its construction was first proposed. Chris Luck investigates...

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Until recently the environmental impact of projects was at best given scant regard. While far from perfect, there are now legal obligations for the owner of the concession to run the line, LISEA, and the company in charge of construction, COSEA, to preserve and protect wherever possible the environment and biodiversity of the areas crossed, using the dictum “Avoid, Reduce and Offset” to formulate their environmental actions. When avoidance is not possible, and the impacts have been minimised, it may thus be necessary to compensate (or offset) for areas affected by the work. Granted and controlled by the State, such compensatory measures are aimed at creating or restoring habitats of protected species, which as we will see, are particularly important when traversing a region with such a rich natural heritage.

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Some 223 protected species have been identified along the route, including many which are rare or already threatened, and 14 Natura 2000 sites are involved. Due to their sensitivity these require even greater protection to minimise adverse impacts.

Where sensitive sites and species are identified they must first be protected from construction work and heavy plant movements. This might mean fencing off or excluding areas, or relocating species before work commences, and until completion. In some cases it’s necessary to place nets, barriers or scaring devices to prevent species attempting to reinstall themselves in construction sectors. Where species (principally aquatic or amphibious) have to be relocated, suitable alternative habitats must be provided by the creation of ponds, ditches and pools.

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All relocation and offsetting takes place as close to the track as possible, and there are approximately 3,500 hectares where compensatory measures have been implemented. These have been agreed with the parties directly concerned, including nature associations and farming representatives, and approved by administrative authorities. They will then be followed and supported by LISEA throughout the 50-year duration of their concession to operate the line.

Perhaps the most outstanding features are the provision and management of 700 hectares for the Little Bustard (a bird red-listed as endangered in France, and whose last migratory population is centred in a few breeding zones in Vienne, Deux-Sèvres and Charente) plus some 720 hectares for the critically endangered European Mink (whose last remaining western European population is in Aquitaine, Charente and Charente-Maritime, with a small number in northern Spain).

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Land purchased by LISEA can either be placed under the management of a structure like CREN (Conservatoire Régional d’Espaces Naturels) or managed by contractual agreement with the users (agricultural or forestry) of lands with favourable ecological potential for species to adapt to and occupy.

Each site dedicated to species protection is subject to initial ecological analysis and given an objective with a management plan developed in partnership with naturalists and the farming community, and validated by the services of competent authorities (DREAL). Every three to five years an inventory is made, to monitor management of habitats and their species populations and if necessary re-evaluated to take account of changing requirements.

Perhaps the areas of greatest concern have been rivers and wetlands needing to be traversed, and any associated drainage and run-offs, with a regard to species present and water quality, both during and following construction. A wetland (zone humide) is essentially land which is saturated with water either permanently or seasonally to create a distinct ecosystem. With more than half of these habitats already lost in France, it’s important to conserve and manage what remains.

LGV-chemin-franceThe construction of the LGV line has involved over 2,000 different projects including the creation of aqueducts and over 130 new ponds for amphibians and other aquatic organisms. During 2013 alone 21,000 fish, 19,000 amphibians, 180 micro mammals (Water Shrew and Southern Water Vole) and 50 reptiles were moved to new quarters. Following sharp declines, Water Shrew and Southern Water Vole are now both fully protected species in France, so special monitoring traps were used to measure movements for the creation of tunnels and vegetation corridors where they are known to exist.

Care needed to be taken even when diverting small streams such as the Veude at Thuré (86) where a fish retrieval operation conducted by la Fédération de Pêche de la Vienne discovered a population of protected White-clawed Crayfish in a temporary bypass channel. This required identifying a safe site for them before setting authorised traps – a total 141 were captured including females with eggs.

Many important wetland sites will have been seen as little more than a nuisance by people living locally. One such area is Le Bocage Humide de Chaunay (86), where some 120 hectares have been purchased by Réseau Ferré de France (RFF), the company which owns and maintains the French national rail network. The land comprises moderately managed small copses and hedged fields which are cut for hay, and is something of an exception among the département’s wetlands. With no connection to any river, an alluvial aquifer feeds directly into pools and ditches, creating a large area of seasonal surface water. With a handful of man made ponds left in existence, there are plans to create another seven on the 45 hectares which has been contracted for 25 years to CREN. They in turn are establishing a management plan with farmers who use the land regarding types and timing of any hay cutting to take into account the various species present.

Having had a glance at some specific situations and measures along the route, it’s worth taking a look at the track as a whole, much of which passes through an agricultural landscape of little environmental value, being intensively cultivated with cereal crops, vineyards or for timber. The principle negative impact of the line is the fact that it creates a distinct barrier, preventing the free movement and mixing of some species, due to the metal fencing either side of the tracks. However, in my view, discounting the natural resources used in the construction, there will be a net long-term gain.

Throughout most of the 300km of track, where feasible, there will be a substantial protected zone either side, extending beyond the wire fencing and which will wherever possible be planted with hedges of native species. As most of us will be aware, in recent years we’ve lost most of our hedgerows throughout the region. This same zone, inside and outside metal fences, will also provide a huge total area of chemical-free unmanaged or scarcely managed natural land. This will support a large number of native plants, grasses, insects, reptiles, bats, micro-mammals and birds, providing a substantial and much needed habitat boost, and a reasonably ‘joined-up’ wildlife corridor.

 

Something which frequently follows massive disturbances and movements of soil is the germination of seeds which may have lain undisturbed for tens or even hundreds of years. The seeds have waited to be positioned at just the right depth, sometimes resulting in the growth of plants rarely seen these days, especially annuals which once flourished in cereal fields before the widespread use of herbicides.

 

Future Investment

In total there have been more than 230 specific works for the passage of small animals and 500 composite structures for the passage of aquatic and semi-aquatic wildlife and small creatures. In addition two Foundations have been established and financed by LISEA:

La Fondation d’Entreprise LISEA Biodiversité aims to support long-term projects for the preservation and restoration of natural heritage in the départements involved with the line. With 5 million euros allocated for the 2012 – 2017 period, it has participated with initiatives, and in 2013 helped with 31 projects, via 26 structures. They have recently selected another 47 projects to support from the 6 départements crossed by the LGV.

La Fondation d’Entreprise LISEA Carbone also helps finance projects in the 6 départements affected by the line, with a budget of 5 million euros for 2012 – 2017. It operates in three main areas: reducing energy consumption of public buildings, efforts to develop a more responsible mobility, plus transitional energy plans for the agricultural world.

© All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Magazine February 15