How our native wildlife copes with winter weather in the mountains

With most of Scotland under a blanket of snow, it made us think about how our native wildlife copes with winter weather.

Wildlife in the winter
Mountain Hare in the Cairngorm National Park

Mountain hares are a fairly regular feature of our upland tours and we don’t always take time to appreciate how well adapted they are to winter weather conditions.  In late Autumn mountain hares grow a thick white winter coat.  The hairs in this are packed far more tightly as those on a human head or even a Labrador retriever.  This dense coat helps keep them insulated against the elements.  If you were to look at it closely you would see that is has 3 distinct layers; an undercoat, a pile layer made of slightly longer hairs and finally an outer layer of long guard hairs.  It is the middle pile hairs which change colour, turning from brown to white during winter, camouflaging them from predators.  Other species which we encounter which are well camouflaged in winter are stoats, ptarmigan and snow buntings.   Hare also have wide feet which allows them sprint across the top of the snow instead of disappearing into a snow drift!

Ptarmigan in the Cairngorm National Park
Ptarmigan in the snow


Ptarmigans are another species which we are lucky enough to occasionally spot.  Like the mountain hares, they are superbly well camouflaged and spotting them in the snow can be troublesome.  One of the most amazing things about ptarmigan is that they wear insulated snow boots in winter.  Well, maybe not snow boots but they do grow extra feathers which keep their feet warm and make them wider so they don’t sink into the snow.  This is particularly necessary as they dig through the snow to find the plants they eat underneath.  If you are lucky enough to see one, you will know that they are often found near the summit of hills, with the wind whipping past.  You would think that this would be a very cold and draughty place to spend the night but Ptarmigan have a great way to get out of the weather.  They make mini snow holes which they shimmy in to overnight.  This keeps them safe from the cold.  But what if a fox snuffles past and finds their hole, I hear you ask?  Luckily for them, the snow transmits vibrations well and they can feel predators coming, letting them make a hasty escape.

On reflection, it seems that mountaineers really have learned a few tricks from wildlife; layering up clothes to trap as much warm air in as possible, wearing snow shoes and even building snow holes to get out of the wind!

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