Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Winter of Highland Snows

We have entered the worst of times for wildlife.  In both Europe and North America they are been reintroduced to the rigors of a deadly winter.  The losses will be heavy.

Otherwise this is a nice bit of writing that captures the essence of this winter.  Enjoy a bitter sweet piece and look at the snowy woods around us and perhaps for the first time in years it is time again to read Robert Frost.

The wildlife is struggling this year though I am sure they will not be hunted out by wolves.

Animals dig in for the big freeze

The harsh winter is playing havoc with Britain’s wildlife, says John Lister-Kaye.

By John Lister-Kaye
Published: 12:01AM GMT 14 Feb 2010

It is winter in the Highlands. In the marsh and the trackside ditch, in the loch’s peaty mires, in the pinewood, the pulses of life have slowed and stilled. The nature of the Highlands has shut up shop; the signs have all come down. It is winter. The bugs and weevils are hiding now, the worms, the millipedes, the caterpillars and leatherjackets, the frog and the toad, adder, slow worm, wood mouse and vole, the squirrel, the hedgehog and the fat snoring badger are settled in for the long, dark cold.

This has been a Scandinavian winter and it isn’t over yet. The last week has been below zero at night, struggling to 3 or 4C by day under a weak sun. Here in the Highlands of Scotland we may be better prepared for snow and ice than further south, but we have become complacent of late. Some years there has just been a dusting of powdery snow, sometimes none at all and the thermometer has barely dipped below zero.

For some of our wildlife, this has been misleading. In warm winters hedgehogs have emerged from hibernation far too early, only to find there is nothing to eat or that the ground freezes again. While they can duck back into hibernation, it is risky and can consume too much energy too quickly so that they don’t make it through to spring. But not this year. They’re still tucked up in their leafy and mossy dens.

I found one quite by accident a few weeks ago. I perched on a stump almost completely rotted, a deep moss-filled crater and a rim of wood just wide enough to support my backside. I peered into its dark, fungally interior – something wasn’t right. It had been recently disturbed. I pried further, carefully lifting a thick green hassock of moss. Underneath was a bed of soft, dry, fibrous and needly litter with the sort of heady, mother-earth scent you’d expect from someone practising aromatherapy in a potting shed. I pushed my fingers into it and came to fresh, dry oak leaves. How could fresh leaves get underneath moss? Now I knew someone was at home. A finger teased gently into the leaves withdrew smartly – it was very prickly.

I couldn’t resist taking a peek, so I half uncovered the fat, large hedgehog curled as tight as a clenched fist. She didn’t stir, although I fancy I detected a slight firming of the furry aperture where her head and legs were tucked together, but whether this was a reflex tension that performed regardless of her torpor or whether she was not yet fully in hibernation, I couldn’t say. Frosts were then nightly events, so she may have been in there for some time; although the fresh leaves she took in with her impaled on her spines as a winter wrapping seemed to suggest that it can only have been after the November leaf fall. What I found so intriguing was how she had managed to close off her entrance, somehow blocking the tunnel with leaves and pulling the moss door closed behind her.

I covered her up again, tucking her nest in around her and doing a slightly better concealment job than she had done for herself. I gathered some extra moss from another stump and laid it carefully over the top. Foxes and badgers will unroll a hibernating hedgehog and leave only its spiny skin as the evidence of their efficiency. We have plenty of both foraging through our winter woods, and while I don’t believe in interfering with nature – a complicated ethic I have often struggled with – I certainly didn’t want to be the cause of her demise. I finished off with a couple of dead spruce branches across the top for good measure.

So she is well out of the way, below the cold, then below snowdrift, breathing barely detectable and only a flicker of a heartbeat, down from 190 per minute to 20 or less. Hedgehogs’ body temperatures fall from 35C to 10C, only the area around the heart retaining its normal temperature. Metabolism falls by 75 per cent, which is vital so that it can eke out the consumption of its precious fat reserves. Hopefully this year she will stay where she is until April.

Our winter hit in a big way back in mid-December. Suddenly we had 56cm (22in) of heavy wet snow immediately followed by a freeze. Not a fridge freeze, this was a deep freeze – actually, colder than your deep freeze. At its moonlit nadir it crashed to -18C. That’s -0.4F in old money, what we used to call 33 degrees of frost. And it lasted for four weeks, cold sufficient to turn snowdrifts into rigid ramps and pyramids of impenetrable ice, to freeze the loch to 27cm (11in).

Power lines and trees burdened with frozen snow came down, pipes froze and avalanches of ice cascaded down roofs, bringing with them slates and guttering by the yard. Farm buildings crashed to the ground. But that is nothing compared with what happened to the poor old woodcock. This most elegant of all woodland waders survives by probing the leaf litter with its bill for insects, worms and bugs. It couldn’t. For weeks they found nothing to eat at all.

My friend Peter Tilbrook picked up three dead woodcock in his garden at Cromarty and I found one in our woods so weak that I could pick it up. Wrens have been clobbered, too. Very sensibly they congregate in huddles to keep themselves warm. But many wrens, tits and tree creepers will not have survived the cold; it isn’t just that they can’t maintain body heat, even if they could there are no insects to eat.

On the foreshore waders have had a hard time as the sea edge and the mudflats froze like concrete. I found dead oystercatchers, and where I usually see turnstones they were absent – sensibly headed south for unfrozen stones to turn. Our grey geese, normally overwintering here on the Moray Firth in tens of thousands on the fertile stubble and potato fields, cleared off to England or the Low Countries.

Last night I went to see if our badgers were out and about, and they were. I was pleased to see two animals in good condition, perhaps helped by the peanuts we put out for them. And I saw one pipistrelle bat chasing a moth, but then the pips are remarkable. They have a much more mobile hibernation than the hedgehog. They can switch their heterothermic torpor on and off, so if it warms up in mid-winter and a few moths emerge, they can pop out for a night bite.

Many of the flying insects are dead, like the corpses of dragonflies gripped to the stems of rushes in a last embrace. Their work is done; their future lies in the eggs now secure among water-lily leaves frost-browned and rotting beneath the ice. The long-eared bats vanished from the roof long ago, migrated south in pursuit of warmth and insects; dozens of twitching bundles of fur and membranous ears jammed into the apex under the slates, there one minute, gone the next.

All but the toughest birds have headed south; the golden plovers are long gone from the hills, their plaintive calls faded away, down to the estuaries and the mud flats where they gathered in flocks before pressing on south. The high hills are empty but for the golden eagle and the snow-white ptarmigan; above the loch the buzzards scream back at the croaking jeers of ravens and hoodie crows, the only sounds, the only movement to be seen.

Our eagles will do well this winter. Red deer are starving right across the hills; an abundance of carrion dots the snowfields and hill sheep will have succumbed too if shepherds couldn’t get hay to them in the deep snow. So the eagles will come through well and we may even see an increase in chick production this spring. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

·                'At the Water’s Edge: A Personal Quest for Wilderness’ by John Lister-Kaye (Canongate Books), is available from Telegraph Books for £15.99 plus £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1516 or visit

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