How wildlife copes with winter in the Cairngorms

Mountain hare

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If you were searching for the coldest, windiest and harshest place to spend the winter in Britain, you need look no further than the Cairngorm plateau.

Britain's highest mountain range is the only extensive example in Britain of an arctic-alpine habitat, similar in climate, flora and fauna to areas far to the north, within the Arctic Circle.

The reason for this is its height: the Cairngorms include five of the six highest summits in Britain, culminating in Cairn Gorm itself, which rises to 1244 metres above sea level.

The Winterwatch team will be braving the chill to broadcast live from the area next week, but how does the wildlife there cope with extreme conditions?

The highland life

Ptarmigan, winter plumage

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In summer, these mountaintops play host to a highly specialised suite species, including red deer, dotterel and red grouse.

But in winter very few creatures remain, most heading down to lower altitudes where they are able to find food.

Those that stick it out are perfectly adapted to life in this bleak, unforgiving landscape. They include one of our top predators, the golden eagle, which hunts across vast areas of these snow-covered slopes throughout the year.

Three of the smaller stars of the slopes share a common camouflage trick: the ptarmigan, mountain hare and stoat all switch styles for the season.

Colour changing

If there were a prize for Britain's toughest bird, the ptarmigan would be head and shoulders above any contender.

Feeling the chill

Cairngorm mountain range
  • The strongest gust of wind ever recorded anywhere in the UK was 173 mph (278 km/h) on the summit of Cairn Gorm in March 1986
  • The town of Braemar, on the southern edge of the Cairngorms National Park, is officially the coldest place in Britain. The temperature has twice dropped to minus 27.2 degrees C, in February 1895 and January 1982
  • Snow often remains in small patches all year round on the northern, shaded side of mountain summits such as Ben Macdui

A member of the grouse family, and about the size and shape of a domestic chicken, it changes its plumage throughout the year to match its surroundings, and give it the best chance of avoiding predators.

As autumn turns to winter, the ptarmigan switches from its grey-brown garb to almost pure white. Only its outer tail-feathers and eye-patch remain black.

Ptarmigan have several adaptations to enable them to survive the harsh winter. The soles of their feet are feathered, acting as snowshoes to enable them to walk without slipping, and to retain heat.

Having put on weight in autumn, they move as little as possible during the winter, only emerging for a few hours a day to feed on the shoots of heather, and any lichen, moss, berries or seeds they can find.

At night they bury themselves in a layer of snow, which provides insulation, as does their plumage, a dense layer of tightly packed feathers, each of which traps air.

Alongside the small flocks of ptarmigan feeding on the side of the mountain, you may also see another creature well adapted to this wintry habitat: the mountain hare.

This little mammal spends the whole of the year here, changing its appearance to blend in with the habitat. In spring and summer it is mainly grey but changes gradually to an all-white coat in late autumn and winter.

Mountain hares also have special adaptations to survive, including wide feet, which act like snowshoes, a thick coat of dense hairs to trap air and a rapid turn of speed to flee from predators.

Small but tough
Stoat with summer coat In summer, the coat of the stoat is brown above and creamy white below

Both ptarmigan and mountain hare are also vulnerable to the third creature able to turn white in winter: the stoat. This small predator really does punch above its weight, able to hunt and kill a hare up to six times its own weight.

In spring and summer, the Cairngorm stoat population resembles those found throughout Britain.

But in winter these northern stoats are transformed into a white animal, still with the black tip to the tail; not to avoid predators as in the case of the ptarmigan and mountain hare, but to become a more effective killer.

Snow bunting Snow buntings are as small as sparrows

The snow bunting may be small, but it is still incredibly tough.

Of the world's 4000 or so songbirds, no other species lives so far north. It is the only small bird ever recorded at the North Pole, and most breed within the Arctic Circle.

In Britain, snow buntings are on the southern edge of their breeding range, with fewer than 100 pairs nesting on the rocky plateau of the Cairngorms each spring and summer.

Most of these join their more northerly cousins and head down to the coast in winter, but a few stay put.

All these creatures, from the mighty golden eagle, through the ptarmigan, mountain hare and stoat, to the tiny snow bunting, have adapted perfectly to life here in the harshest environment in Britain.

Winterwatch comes live from the Cairngorms and begins on Monday 20 January at 2030 GMT on BBC Two.

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